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Indonesia for Sale: in-depth series on corruption, palm oil and rainforests launches

Indonesia for Sale header. Image by Leo Plunkett.

  • The investigative series Indonesia for Sale, launching this week, shines new light on the corruption behind Indonesia’s deforestation and land rights crisis.
  • In-depth stories, to be released over the coming months, will expose the role of collusion between palm oil firms and politicians in subverting Indonesia’s democracy. They will be published in English and Indonesian.
  • The series is the product of nine months’ reporting across the country, interviewing fixers, middlemen, lawyers and companies involved in land deals, and those most affected by them.
  • Indonesia for Sale is a collaboration between Mongabay and The Gecko Project, an investigative reporting initiative established by UK-based nonprofit Earthsight.

(Read the first article in the series, “The palm oil fiefdom.”)

Indonesia, a nation of thousands of islands draped across the equator, is in the grips of a social and environmental crisis.

Its rainforests are being destroyed at a catastrophic rate. Nearly every year it is cloaked in a choking haze from burning peatlands. Thousands of conflicts over land persist across the archipelago. It is one of the most unequal societies on earth, with half of its wealth controlled by 1 percent of the population. Local elections, where power over millions of people is decided, descend into a brazen display of vote-buying and bribery.

Many of the causes of these problems can be traced back to one source: the corrupt actions of a small number of politicians who have taken control of Indonesia’s districts.

In the turbulent years after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998, huge powers were transferred from the central government to Indonesia’s districts. Specifically, to the bupatis, the elected officials who presided over these jurisdictions, and who assumed new control over how land and forests within them could be used.

Within a few short years, the bupatis had built fiefdoms across Indonesia. They used their newfound powers to cash in on natural resources, bankroll elections and build dynasties by installing relatives as their successors and in other influential positions.

Under their watch, oil palm plantation companies were granted millions of hectares of land and forests. Much of it was used and owned by indigenous and other rural communities, whose rights were cast aside in favor of the private sector.

Plantation companies have played a central role in the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. They have drained its peat swamps, rendering vast landscapes prone to outbreaks of fire. They have taken community lands and offered little in return, sparking intractable conflicts.

The land deals overseen by the bupatis concentrated immense territories in the hands of conglomerates owned by super-rich oligarchs from around Southeast Asia. At the same time, they deprived many of the poorest rural families from access to the fields and forests on which they depend for their livelihoods and food security. While successive national governments paid lip service to the need for land reform, precisely as a means of reducing inequality, the bupatis were busy giving more land to the rich.

Arkani, a Dayak man from Indonesian Borneo who says an oil palm company grabbed his land. Photo by Leo Plunkett for The Gecko Project.

Over the past nine months, Mongabay and The Gecko Project have investigated the corrupt ways in which government officials handed out vast tracts of Indonesia to private firms. We traveled to the heart of Borneo, to the swamplands of southern Kalimantan, to a paradise island of mangrove forests, and to a remote corner of eastern Indonesia. We met with indigenous activists who carried out their own investigations into the officials pillaging their land, and with fixers who facilitated deals between politicians and companies in Jakarta hotels.

Over the coming weeks we will release our findings in a series of articles and short films collectively titled Indonesia for Sale. The series is centered around three case studies, each shedding light on a central component of the way in which large swaths of the country have been transferred by corrupt politicians into private hands.

The first installment, “The palm oil fiefdom,” shines a spotlight on a bupati in Borneo who tried to turn almost the entire southern half of his district into one giant oil palm plantation, for the benefit of his relatives and cronies. It delves into one of the most egregious examples of a system in which district chiefs collude with private companies to exploit their office, with devastating consequences for people and the environment.

The next installment follows the money trail that ended in the bribery of Akil Mochtar, chief justice of the nation’s highest court, to secure an election win in Borneo. It lays bare the connection between natural resources, land deals and money politics, and the middlemen who serve as the connective tissue in that relationship.

The final installment exposes a shadowy cabal that constitutes the largest single threat to Indonesia’s forests today, with links from Papua to Malaysia to Yemen. It reveals the methods these individuals are using to hide their identities and the illegality of their projects as they forge east into the archipelago’s last frontier.

These will be supported by articles that explore broader issues raised by our investigations. For example, the role of brokers in facilitating oil palm deals, the tricks employed by companies to acquire land from indigenous groups, and the widespread failure of plantation firms in Indonesia to provide smallholdings for nearby communities, as required by law.

For more than a decade, the fate of Indonesia’s forests has been recognized as a global problem. The expansion of agriculture into these carbon-rich ecosystems has made the nation a leading greenhouse gas emitter.

But for all of the responses that have been devised by policymakers and the private sector, plantation companies continue to destroy forests and violate human rights. Many policies have failed because corrupt politicians have been allowed to collude with the private sector in a vacuum of accountability and scrutiny.

Indonesia for Sale puts these politicians firmly in the spotlight.

Follow Mongabay and The Gecko Project on Facebook (here, here) for updates on the series.