Conservation news

Public access to Indonesian plantation data still mired in bureaucracy

Illegal forest clearingfor oil palm in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Illegal forest clearing for oil palm in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

  • Indonesia’s agrarian ministry continues to hold out on releasing oil palm plantation data to the public, a year after the Supreme Court ordered it to comply with a freedom-of-information ruling.
  • The ministry argues it is obliged to generate revenue from the release of such data, and that the lack of a payment mechanism prevents it from complying.
  • It also initially dodged a request for similar data filed by the national mapping agency, citing the same reason, but complied after the anti-corruption agency intervened.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has still not made publicly available its detailed maps and related documents on plantation companies operating in the country, a year after the nation’s highest court ordered it to do so in the interests of transparency.

Linda Rosalina, a campaigner with the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI), which has been pushing the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning for the past three years to release the data, said there had been no progress in the year since the Supreme Court upheld a freedom-of-information order on the matter.

“We’ve sent letters to the ministry, which they’ve replied to by saying the matter is being discussed internally,” Linda said. “We’ve sent letters asking for a meeting with the minister, Sofyan Djalil, and there’s been no response at all.”

The battle began in 2015, when FWI filed a request with the ministry for data on right-to-cultivate permits for plantation and farming businesses, known as HGU permits.

Each HGU permit includes details such as land boundaries, coordinates and the area of the concession, as well as the leaseholder’s name. The HGU documents are vital because withholding them enables land-grabbing, with companies often laying claim to community lands without showing their concession maps.

FWI has reported an increasing number of land conflicts in plantation areas, from just 38 cases in 2013 to 723 in 2017.

While maps for plantations are already published on the agrarian ministry’s website, those maps are not detailed enough to see the most recent legal status of those concessions.

“The maps don’t say who the holders of the permits are and what kind of commodities” are being grown, Linda said.

The ministry rejected FWI’s initial request, prompting the NGO in 2016 to bring its case to the Central Information Commission, or KIP, which processes freedom-of-information requests to the government. The KIP duly found in favor of FWI and ordered the ministry to release the requested documents.

The ministry, however, appealed the order, arguing that releasing the names of leaseholders constituted a violation of the firms’ privacy. But the appeals fell flat as a series of courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, sided with FWI.

With the ministry refusing to cooperate, FWI has appealed to the national ombudsman, who is himself a former KIP commissioner. The NGO is also staging protests outside the minister’s office in an effort to force the ministry to release the data.

“We filed a report with the ombudsman in August last year,” Linda said. “But to date the ombudsman still hasn’t given its recommendation. We don’t want to just sit still. That’s why we decided to launch a petition on petition on”

The petition, begun two months ago, has now amassed more than 50,000 signatures. FWI has also launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #BukaInformasiHGU, or “release the HGU information.”

An oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Data paywall

For its part, the agrarian ministry insists there needs to be a mechanism in place to regulate how the public can access the data, which includes a paywall.

Sofyan, the minister, said late last year that access to each piece of data should be priced at 50,000 rupiah ($3.50), per an existing regulation on state revenue. He said this kind of paywall for data was common practice in developed countries.

The ministry also cited the lack of a payment mechanism for its initial refusal to provide HGU data to the National Geospatial Agency, or BIG, the Indonesian mapping authority.

The BIG had sought the information to establish a single database for all government maps under its ambitious one-map policy. That project is expected to play a key role in resolving existing issues related to land ownership conflicts in the country. The government aims to launch the database in August, to coincide with the country’s independence anniversary.

When the BIG eventually obtained the data it needed from the agrarian ministry, it was through the intervention of the national anti-corruption agency, the KPK.

“The BIG came to the ministry, [but] the data wasn’t shared,” KPK commissioner Laode Muhammad Syarif said at a conference late last year. “Finally the BIG asked the KPK, and we asked [the ministry] to give [the documents] to the BIG.”

Sofyan later said it was “not a problem” for the BIG to have access to the data, but that for the public there still needed to be a payment mechanism.

Nurwadjedi, a deputy at the BIG in charge of the one-map policy, confirmed that some of the ministries that had submitted data to the BIG had revenue obligations with regard to the public release of the data. He said the office of the coordinating minister for the economy was drafting a regulation on a payment mechanism for public access to the maps in the one-map initiative.

FWI’s Linda said the NGO had no objection paying for the HGU documents if the fee was reasonable. But she questioned whether the public should be charged for data that the freedom-of-information commission had already ruled constituted public documents.

Suyus Windayana, the head of land data and information systems at the agrarian ministry, said he and other ministry officials had met with the ombudsman recently to discuss the release of the HGU data to FWI. However, he declined to disclose any details of the discussion.

“We will be invited for another meeting [by the ombudsman] because we still have to talk about data security,” Suyus told Mongabay.


Banner image: A patch of forest in Sumatra’s Riau province illegally cleared for an oil palm plantation. Photo by Rhett A Butler/Mongabay.