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Video: Meet the Bornean village chief dealing with the fallout from a corrupt plantation deal

Kardie, head of Tumbang Pajangei village in Gunung Mas, where a large oil palm company is quickly expanding.

  • “Ghosts in the Machine” is an investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project, an initiative of the UK-based research house Earthsight.
  • The article follows the money used to bribe Indonesia’s highest-ranking judge in 2013 to a series of massive land deals in the interior of Borneo, where a corrupt politician presided over a scheme to sell oil palm plantation licenses to a Malaysian firm.
  • Short films produced in conjunction with the article feature some of the people affected by Hambit’s licensing scheme. One of them features a local village chief named Kardie. Watch the video below.

One afternoon in 2017, an indigenous Dayak man named Kardie tracked us down to a hotel in Kuala Kurun, a one-horse town in the interior of Indonesian Borneo. He had heard that our small team of reporters was investigating an oil palm plantation firm that was cutting into the forests surrounding his village, Tumbang Pajangei.

Kardie gave us the skeleton of his story: After being elected village headman, he discovered that his predecessor had signed a spate of documents allowing the company to annex a huge chunk of his community’s land. The revelation had come as a shock: Kardie and other village leaders had objected to the proposed plantation the few times they had been asked for their views. The permit had been issued by the head of Gunung Mas district, a man named Hambit Bintih, who had since been convicted for his role in a bribery scheme.

The island of Borneo is larger than Texas. Gunung Mas district is nearly as big as Connecticut.


Kardie’s story was not unusual. Indonesia is home to hundreds of indigenous communities, but they tend to lack formal titles to the lands they inhabit, with the government treating them as squatters in their own homes. After Hambit Bintih allowed the plantation firm to operate in Kardie’s village, chaos ensued, with some villagers resigned to accepting small amounts of compensation as others continued to resist.

Rainforest cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation in Gunung Mas.

The fate of Tumbang Pajangei is one small part of a larger story The Gecko Project and Mongabay investigated in 2017 and 2018. Our article on Hambit Bintih’s licensing practices linked the land deals that affected dozens of villages in Gunung Mas to a bribery scandal that brought down not only Hambit and the manager of his reelection campaign, but also the chief justice of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court. The villagers, and their forest, were just collateral damage in a far bigger game.

The following day, at Kardie’s invitation, we visited Tumbang Pajangei to see for ourselves how the company’s activities were affecting village life. Watch our profile of Kardie to find out more, and read our investigation, “Ghosts in the Machine,” for the full story.

Profile: Kardie

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