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Not in my backyard: Indonesian official fights corrupt palm concession

Indonesian rainforest. Photo for Mongabay by Rhett A. Butler.

Indonesian rainforest. Photo for Mongabay by Rhett A. Butler.

  • A district chief in Indonesia is seeking to overturn a decision by the environment ministry to approve a request that would allow a palm oil company to clear forest for plantation in Buol district, on the island of Sulawesi.
  • The case has been controversial since the start, with the company initially being awarded the concession after bribing the previous district chief for the permit.
  • The recent approval also goes against a moratorium issued last year on the issuance of permits for new plantations.
  • However, the environment minister exploited loopholes in a pair of regulations to push through the approval, despite the opposition of the Buol administration and residents.

JAKARTA — A local official in Indonesia has mounted a non-legal challenge against the national government for permitting the development of a corruption-riddled oil palm concession in his district.

Amirudin Rauf, the head of Buol district in the eastern Indonesian province of Central Sulawesi, filed his complaint under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s dispute mechanism. He’s seeking to reverse the minister’s decision earlier this year to essentially allow the conversion of 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) of rainforest in Buol into an oil palm plantation.

Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar exercised provisions under a 2015 government regulation and a 2016 ministerial regulation that grant her discretionary authority to change the land-use status of an area from “forest” — where plantations are forbidden — to “non-forest,” where they’re allowed.

These provisions carry a “huge” potential for abuse of power, said Viktor Santoso Tandiasa, a lawyer representing the Buol administration in the dispute.

“Based on the two regulations, the environment minister can just issue [permits] based on his or her wishes,” he told reporters in Jakarta after filing the report. “It means there’s a potential of abuse of power that is quite huge. This is dangerous because the minister can arbitrarily issue forest conversion permits in all forest areas.”

The minister’s decision in Buol, effectively pushing a development opposed by local authorities and residents, sets a disturbing precedent for other regions being eyed for similar developments, Viktor said.

“The minister has a power that can create a conflict of authority with district chiefs — not just the Buol district chief, but all local leaders in Indonesia,” he said. “In this particular case, it’s blatantly obvious that the environment minister has ignored the Buol district chief’s authority.”

The legal team of Buol district chief Amirudin Rauf filed a report to challenge the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s decision to issue a forest conversion permit in the district. Image courtesy of Walhi.

A corrupt start

The area approved for conversion falls within a concession held by the palm oil firm PT Hardaya Inti Plantations (HIP), owned by business tycoon and politician Hartati Murdaya Poo. Hartati was arrested in 2012 by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, for bribing the Buol district chief at the time, Amran Batalipu, to grant her the concession. Both Hartati and Amran were convicted and jailed for the bribery, but the concession remained with PT HIP.

In 2018, PT HIP submitted a request for forest conversion so that it could formally begin clearing and planting on the land. Given the corruption case and a blanket moratorium in 2018 on the issuance of new permits for oil palm plantations, environmental activists and anti-graft officials felt there was no way the request would be approved.

Siti, though, justified giving the company the green light on a technicality. She said the company had received what’s known as a principal permit in 1997, which effectively marked the start of its application process for a forest conversion permit. The moratorium, she said, didn’t apply to application processes that had been in the works that long. She also alluded to a government regulation signed by President Widodo in late 2015, about land-use changes, to justify her decision.

Indonesian business tycoon and politician Siti Hartati Murdaya. Image by KPK.

Overriding authority

The use of that 2015 regulation effectively overrode Amirudin’s authority, as district chief, to decide whether to approve a location permit for the company — without which it would never have been allowed to submit its request for the forest conversion permit to the environment ministry.

Amirudin took office in October 2012, having defeated Amran in an election in July. (Amran was arrested in September while still in office.) From the time he entered office, Amirudin was opposed to the spread of the palm oil industry in Buol: In 2013 he canceled 10 plantation permits that had been issued by Amran. In a 2014 interview with Mongabay, he declared that no more palm oil companies would be allowed to invest in Buol, and objected specifically to PT HIP’s plans to expand its operations in the district.

He has repeatedly said the district can’t accommodate more plantations without sacrificing its environment, pointing to the large swaths of degraded land left from deforestation by plantation companies.

That opposition is reflected among the Buol electorate and officials on the ground, said Rusli S. Hut, the head of research and development at the district planning bureau.

“It was like we’d been sidestepped, because there were meetings happening [about the company’s expansion plans] that the district chief wasn’t aware of,” he said. “And then there were also reports from residents … who were affected [by the plans] and also rejected them.”

Despite the lack of a location permit from Amirudin, the environment minister was able to issue the forest conversion permit thanks to a loophole in the 2015 regulation, Viktor said. Effectively, the minister herself filed the request for the conversion permit and then granted it. Because of that, Viktor said, “the minister could say she didn’t need the location permit.”

Mohamad Hasan, a lawyer for the South Sulawesi chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), which is supporting the Buol administration in its legal challenge, said the ministry had omitted to involve the district chief or even notify him about mapping the boundaries of the concession prior to issuing the conversion permit.

“We believe there’s a violation of procedure here,” he said.

Former Buol district head Amran Batalipu. Image by

‘A fatal mistake’

The Buol administration has filed its challenge through a dispute settlement mechanism introduced by the environment ministry in 2017.

One of its demands is that the authority under the 2015 regulation to request a forest conversion permit be taken away from the environment minister and given to other ministers also overseeing forestry, including the agrarian minister, according to Viktor.

More immediately, the challenge also seeks to get the recently issued forest conversion permit revoked.

Amirudin decided not to take the case to court because he didn’t want to be branded a “rebel” against the government, Viktor said. “That’s why we decided to take the non-litigation route so that this issue can be solved internally within the government,” he said.

Once filed, the case has to be resolved within 14 days. After that, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights will issue a recommendation to the president on what action to take, if any.

Viktor said the Buol administration and Walhi hoped the president would do the right thing by ordering Siti to revoke the permit, given that the whole case was wracked by irregularities from the start.

“We want to see the political will from the president,” he said. “[What will he do] when his subordinate clearly made a fatal mistake?”


Banner image: Indonesian rainforest in Sulawesi. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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