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Oil palm firms advance into Leuser rainforest, defying Aceh governor’s orders

Mahouts atop Sumatran elephants in Aceh. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The government of Indonesia’s Aceh province has banned land clearance for oil palm development inside the Leuser Ecosystem.
  • However, deforestation is still ongoing as some companies ignore the moratorium.
  • During the first seven months of 2017, Leuser lost 3,941 hectares of forest cover, an area almost three times as large as Los Angeles International Airport, watchdogs say.

Oil palm plantation companies are still eating away at the Leuser Ecosystem, one of Indonesia’s last best rainforests, despite a provincial ban on forest clearance to make way for the lucrative estates.

In some cases, fruit from these plantations has entered the refineries of Wilmar International, Golden Agri-Resources, Musim Mas other palm oil giants that have promised to purge their supply chains of deforestation and other ills.

Leuser straddles the border of Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, in the archipelago country’s westernmost reaches. It is home to an array of rare animals, including the unique Sumatran varieties of rhino, elephant, tiger and orangutan,

In June 2016, the Acehnese government declared a moratorium on forest clearance for oil palm development, in a bid to prevent the loss of critical lowland forests in the Leuser Ecosystem.

The moratorium was stipulated in a circular letter that ordered all oil palm firms to stop clearing forests, even within areas they have already been licensed to develop, while the government reviews their permits.

That policy came on the heels of an announcement by President Joko Widodo that there should be no new oil palm plantation permits, with the country covered in the licenses already. But more than a year since Aceh issued its moratorium, plantations have continued to expand into Leuser.

During the first seven months of 2017, Leuser lost 3,941 hectares of forest cover, an area almost three times as large as Los Angeles International Airport, according to local watchdog Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA).

From May to June, Leuser lost 1,093 hectares of forest. In July it was 192 hectares, according to HAkA’s Agung Dwinurcahya.

If every company operating inside Leuser adhered to the moratorium, including by guarding its concession against encroachers, he said, then there should be no more forest clearing inside the area.

“But the moratorium is defied,” Dwinurcahya said. “Forest destruction clearly still happens every day, whether inside the Leuser Ecosystem or outside. It is done either by companies or by local people living around the forests.”

Likewise, satellite monitoring and field investigations done by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a U.S.-based advocacy group, also showed that deforestation was ongoing in the critical ecosystem.

“We know from on-the-ground reports and satellite imagery that the Leuser Ecosystem continues to be destroyed, despite national and regional protections in place,” RAN forests communication manager Emma Rae Lierley wrote in an email.

A Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), one of Leuser’s iconic species. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Who are the culprits?

Late last year, RAN produced a report about land clearing by oil palm companies within the Leuser Ecosystem. More recently, the NGO has set up a website, Leuser Watch, to provide continual updates on the companies identified in the 2016 report.

Some companies operating inside Leuser are respecting the moratorium, RAN found. But others continue to destroy crucial lowland rainforests and peatlands inside the areas ceded to them by district chiefs, who are in charge of licensing for oil palm plantations.

In some cases, “It’s not definitive yet that the deforestation was done by the companies,” HAkA’s Dwinurcahya cautioned. “It could be the case of local people entering their concessions and open up new lands.”

But in others, RAN presents evidence, such as photos of company-owned bulldozers, indicating the firm is indeed responsible.

The companies in question are PT Tualang Raya, PT Tegas Nusantara, PT Agra Bumi Niaga, PT Surya Panen Subur II, PT Aloer Timur, PT Putra Kurnia, PT Indo Alam, PT PNI Blang Tualang, PT Kallista Alam, PT Dua Perkasa Lestari, PT Indo Sawit Perkasa and PT Agro Sinergi Nusantara (ASN), previously known as PT Perkebunan Nusantara I.

The most egregious offender is PT Agra Bumi Niaga. The latest data shows that since June 2016, the company has cleared 366 hectares of rainforest, including Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatrensis) habitat.

Next on the list is PT Tualang Raya, with 187 hectares deforested in its concession during that the same period, and PT Surya Panen Subur II, with 173 hectares. None of the three could be reached for comment.

In many cases, the growers are selling to the biggest names in palm oil, a product found in everything from chocolate to laundry detergent.

Aerial view of the recent land clearing inside PT Agra Bumi Niaga’s concession in Peunaron Village. East Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Paul Hilton for RAN.

PT Agra Bumi Niaga

RAN tracked the fruit from PT Agra Bumi Niaga’s plantation to a mill owned by PT Ensem Sawita, a supplier to six of the world’s largest palm oil traders: Wilmar International, Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources, Cargill, IOI and Archer Daniels Midland.

Some companies have responded to the report, such as Wilmar, Musim Mas and IOI.

According to Wilmar, PT Ensem Sawita was not aware that its fruit supplier PT Putri Hijau was acquired by Agra Bumi. Therefore, Agra Bumi’s fruit might have entered Ensem Sawita’s supply chain via Putri Hijau.

However, Ensem Sawita told Wilmar it had not sourced from Agra Bumi since July, when it learned about the problem via RAN’s report.

PT Ensem Sawita decided not to resume purchase from PT Agra Bumi Niaga until this [fruit] supplier has been assessed and implemented the necessary corrective actions as per recommended by an independent assessor,” Wilmar said in an August statement.

Musim Mas said it met with Ensem Sawita in August to discuss the matter, and that during the meeting Ensem confirmed it had stopped buying from Agra Bumi. Ensem also told Musim Mas it had moved to achieve Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil certification, which would mean it had fulfilled basic legal requirements. (Many oil palm companies operate illegally, with district chiefs failing to regulate them.)

An aerial image of PT Ensem Sawita’s palm oil mill. Photo by Paul Hilton for RAN.

PT Surya Panen Subur

PT Surya Panen Subur is operating in the Tripa peatland region, home to one of the largest concentrations of Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), a critically endangered species. Its fruit makes its way into the supply chain of refiner Golden Agri.

Golden Agri says the land clearing in Surya Panen’s concession is the work of local people who have encroached on it, not the company.

“This issue is very complex and not an easy fix,” Daniel Prakarsa, head of downstream sustainability implementation at Golden Agri, said in an interview.

According to a 2014 report by Golden Agri, the concession is being occupied by residents of Kuala Seumayam village and a company called CV Sawit Mandiri.

Kuala Seumayam is home to some 500 people. Residents say they were kicked off their land when the district chief licensed oil palm planters PT Surya Panen and PT Kallista Alam to operate in the 2000s.

That’s what they told Golden Agri, too. “The community informed [us] that they have customary rights to the land at these locations and that these areas are important for their livelihoods,” Golden Agri’s report read. “They are not receptive to external party opinion/criticism about their land-clearing activities.”

Muhammad M. Nur, Aceh director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, a pressure group, said the villagers could not be blamed for the land clearing.

“It’s the fault of the government,” Nur said in an interview. “Why do they have to give business permits [to companies] for such a vast area of land for such a long period of time?”

As for Surya Panen, “The company hasn’t taken firm action to stop illegal land clearing in its concession,” Walhi said in a statement.

Golden Agri’s Prakarsa said the refiner would “mentor” its supplier to bring about a solution.

“We acknowledge PT Surya Panen Subur II’s commitment and effort to continue seeking the best way to stop encroachment and deforestation by external parties,” he said. “As part of this effort, we are helping mentor PT Surya Panen Subur II to implement conflict resolution mechanism to resolve tenurial issue.”


A Sumatran orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

While deforestation in Leuser is still ongoing, it has slowed in past years.  

“On average, the deforestation rate in Leuser is around 12,000 hectares per year,” Dwinurcahya said. “But until July this year, it had just reached 3,941 hectares, not even half of the annual rate.”

There were 4,609 hectares deforested in the first six months of 2016 and 10,433 hectares within the same period in 2015.

But Dwinurcahya said it was too early to credit the slowdown to the moratorium, because if the moratorium was truly enacted there would be zero forest loss.


Banner image: Mahouts atop Sumatran elephants in Aceh. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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