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Korean palm oil firm burned large tracts of forestland in Indonesia, NGOs allege

  • A new report by environmental group Mighty and partners highlights rainforest destruction and fires on land belonging to the conglomerate Korindo in Indonesia’s Papua province.
  • Satellite images and hotspot data show the spread of fire closely mirrors land development in the company’s oil palm concessions, an indication it used fire to clear land cheaply.
  • Burning land to clear it is illegal for companies in Indonesia, but many firms have done so anyway, fueling the annual forest and peatland fires that blanket the region in a choking haze.

Indonesia’s final frontier of forestland is being decimated by a Korean conglomerate, which is violating the law by systematically burning land in its pursuit of lucrative palm oil, a new investigation claims.

Burning Paradise,” released today by environmental group Mighty and partners, uses satellite images and hotspot data, as well as on-the-ground research, to document the practices of Korindo in its remote oil palm plantations in Indonesian Papua.

The investigation shows that Korindo — the largest palm oil company operating in Papua — is responsible for 30,000 hectares of deforestation and an estimated 894 fire hotspots since 2013.

The company’s practices are devastating Papua’s pristine rainforest, pushing endemic animals like the tree kangaroo to the brink of extinction, infringing on the rights of local communities, and contributing to the Southeast Asian haze, it notes.

“It is nearly certain that Korindo’s plantations will be short-lived: the company is likely to take its money and run. But, unless it invests in massive restoration, it will leave behind a devastated landscape that can no longer support the great diversity of food and people it once did,” the report says.

Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua, whose forests are in relatively good condition compared to those of Sumatra and Borneo farther west.

Using data analyzed by consultancy group Aidenvironment, the report claims that all evidence points to the “systematic and widespread use of fire” by Korindo as it clears biomass from the land to get it ready for planting.

Satellite images show that hotspot locations closely mirror Korindo’s land development, with fires typically coming a few months after deforestation.

Over the past few years, Korindo has “aggressively accelerated” the clearing and burning, destroying 30,000 hectares of forests from early 2013 to May 2016. Some 11,700 hectares of these were old-growth primary forests, the investigation says.

“Burning Paradise” notes that there were almost no fires in forested areas surrounding the plantation development, or in areas already planted with oil palm.

The use of fire to clear land to make way for oil palm plantations is prohibited by Indonesian law for all except the smallest farmers. Possible penalties include fines and prison terms.

Deforestation and hotspots are shown in Korindo’s PT Berkat Cipta Abadi 1 concession, in which the spread of fire closely mirrors land development — an indication the company burned the land to clear it cheaply for planting. Image courtesy of Mighty

Korindo did not respond to requests for comment. On its website, the company claims to be fulfilling its responsibilities towards “protecting Indonesia’s environment and furthering the advancement of its people.”

In May, a company representative reportedly told Korean news website SisaIN that Korindo does not create plantations through “intentional manmade arson.”

However, Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based NGO, noted that while Korindo’s concessions seem to have been affected by fire in a “highly systematic way,” even if this is not the case the company “has a legal obligation to prevent fire in land it is given stewardship over.”

“It has clearly failed to do this, and allegations of the intentional use of fire for development have arisen, implying a criminal act,” he said.

A pile of wood that has been prepared to be burned in land controlled by Korindo in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty

Today’s investigation is not the first time Korindo has come under fire for burning land.

Sam Lawson, director of investigative environmental NGO Earthsight, was last year analyzing a major new development by another company in the same area of southern Papua, when he noticed evidence on satellite imagery of fires in Korindo’s concessions.

While not conclusive proof of wrongdoing, the data published by Earthsight in November showed clear evidence of forest fires burning in areas undergoing conversion for oil palm in two locations owned by Korindo.

Lawson said he was not aware of any subsequent investigation by the Indonesian authorities.

He added that while it is likely that Korindo’s activities there were no worse than the practices of other palm oil companies elsewhere in Indonesia, the fires linked to the Korean company stand out because they are happening in primary forest, and in areas where there is almost no other anthropogenic activity.

“For the latter reason, it is harder for Korindo to try to claim the fires in its concessions were lit outside them and spread into them,” he said.

The spread of hotspots (orange dots) mirrors deforestation (purple) and land clearing in Korindo’s PT Dongin Prabhawa concession. Image courtesy of Earthsight
Another view of Korindo’s PT Dongin Prabhawa illustrates how the spread of hotspots cleared the way for plantation development. From August 19-21, 2013, satellites recorded 43 hotspots in the concession. Image courtesy of Mighty
From October 24-November 1, 2014, satellites recorded 144 hotspots recorded in the PT Dongin Prabhawa concession. Image courtesy of Mighty
From June 16-26, 2015, satellites recorded 164 hotspots on PT Dongin Prabhawa’s land. Image courtesy of Mighty

According to “Burning Paradise,” Korindo has gotten away with all of its forest burning with one exception — in late 2015, it received a permit suspension of three months due to fires in one of its industrial timber concessions in Indonesian Borneo.

In response to the findings of the investigation, two of Korindo’s major buyers — palm oil traders Wilmar and Musim Mas — have stopped sourcing from the company, citing violations of their No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation (NDPE) policies.

Seung Eun-ho is chairman and CEO of the Korindo Group, founded by his father.

In a statement to Mongabay, Wilmar said it had ceased purchases from Korindo in June due to “a lack of progress from the supplier, and in view of the serious allegations.”

“Wilmar is committed to accelerating the transformation of the palm oil industry towards sustainable development, and endeavors to ensure that our suppliers comply with the NDPE Policy,” it said. “Wilmar has gained success with some of our suppliers who have made public their commitment to a sustainability policy similar to ours; we will continue to work with our partners and suppliers towards this goal.”

Musim Mas, meanwhile, noted that following a series of talks, Korindo subsidiary PT Tunas Sawa Erma, which has 25,000 hectares of forest remaining in its three concessions, announced in August a three-month moratorium on new land development as it works towards adopting an NDPE policy.

“This announcement could be an important step in Korindo’s sustainability journey. We will continue our engagement with the Korindo Group in the coming three months by encouraging them to publish a comprehensive NDPE policy with stakeholders’ input,” Musim Mas said. “For now, Korindo has shown the willingness to take the initial steps.”

One of Korindo’s oil palm estates in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty

However, environmental activists say NDPE policies by individual companies are not enough, arguing that it is the government’s responsibility to find more durable solutions.

“If it is just voluntary company action, there will always be companies who free-ride. And the only thing that can stop those free riders is government policies and the enforcement to go with them,” said Earthsight’s Lawson.

“Good companies should not just be implementing their own policies. They should also be fighting to get the Indonesian authorities to take meaningful action, and fighting for support for such actions from governments in consumer countries,” he added.

Wadley of EIA, which has done extensive work on issues in the Indonesian palm oil sector, said current laws and enforcement were not strong enough.

“While the fire season of 2015 generated lots of political will to address the issue, few if any perpetrators of fire have been successfully prosecuted, though the burden of proof is often high,” he said.

“Companies that fail to prevent fire, or which use it themselves, should have their permits revoked, and their executives should be prosecuted.”

An access road into one of Korindo’s concessions in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty

Among its recommendations, “Burning Paradise” calls on Korindo to introduce a moratorium on all new forest clearing and burning, and to remedy its legacy of environmental harm.

Deborah Lapidus, campaign director at public affairs firm Waxman Strategies who collaborated on the report, said she hoped to see an investigation based on the findings with subsequent punishments “severe enough to serve as a deterrent to companies illegally starting forest fires.”

“Korindo and other companies’ shortsighted drive for quick profits could destroy the last remaining ancient rainforests left on our planet in a matter of a few short years unless we stop them now and firmly establish a new model of agricultural growth that doesn’t come at the expense of forests or people,” she said.