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Palm oil giant Korindo silences critical report with cease-and-desist letter

Forest in West Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Forest in West Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Korindo, a major palm oil operator in Indonesia’s Papua region, has sent a cease-and-desist letter to delay the publication of a report highlighting its various violations there.
  • The report was to have been published Sept. 5 by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but the organization says it’s had to postpone publication indefinitely.
  • Mighty Earth, the campaign group whose focus on Korindo’s operations prompted the two-year FSC investigation, says Korindo effectively robbed local communities of hundreds of millions of dollars in land, natural resources and livelihoods.
  • Korindo says it issued the letter to seek more time to address some points, and denies that it’s threatening litigation over the report. It also says it’s working to address the findings of violations.

JAKARTA — The Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s foremost body certifying the sustainable forestry industry, has delayed the publication of its findings into a palm oil company’s operations in Indonesia, following a cease-and-desist letter.

The FSC found earlier this year that subsidiaries of Korindo, an Indonesian-South Korean joint venture that’s an FSC associate, had violated the terms of that association by clearing valuable tracts of rainforest in the Papua region. It also found that the companies failed to properly consult local communities about plans to convert their land into oil palm plantations.

The full findings of the two-year investigation, compiled into three investigative reports, had been set for publication on Sept. 5. However, Korindo, one of the biggest palm oil companies operating in Papua, sent a letter to the FSC ordering it not to publish further information specific to the findings, in a move perceived as a legal threat.

As a result, the FSC has decided to postpone the release of the reports indefinitely, according to FSC Indonesia country manager Hartono Prabowo.

“As a standard legal precautionary measure derived from cease-and-desist orders, FSC has postponed publication of further information concerning the Korindo PfA [policy for association] to allow time for our legal team to analyze in full detail the specific requirements included in the document,” he told Mongabay. Hartono added that the FSC’s international secretariat was currently discussing the matter with the organization’s board of directors.

Despite the legal threat, he said the FSC remained committed to transparency, without specifying whether the organization would eventually release the reports.

“FSC is committed to transparency and the timely release of relevant information on all of its PfA cases and will provide updated and relevant information on the Korindo PfA as soon as this is made possible,” Hartono said.

Speakers from various NGOs and campaign organizations pose together with Papuan indigenous peoples during a press conference about Korindo’s cease-and-desist letter in Jakarta, Indonesia. Daniel Sim Ayomi (second from right), the spokesperson of Korindo Papua, takes issue with Mighty Earth’s claim about the company’s operation in Papua, saying that the organization should go to the field and ask all indigenous peoples, not just one or two people. Image courtesy of Mighty Earth.

‘Something to hide’

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Mighty Earth, a campaign group that has highlighted Korindo’s practices in Papua. In response to the latest development, Mighty Earth lambasted Korindo for sending the cease-and-desist letter to the FSC.

“Korindo is using the threat of legal action to bury the FSC’s findings and suppress evidence of its wrongdoing,” Mighty Earth senior campaign director Deborah Lapidus said. “These are not the actions of an innocent party. Korindo’s willing embrace of bullying tactics is proof they have something to hide.”

Anselmus Amo, a pastor with the Papuan indigenous rights organization SKP-KAMe Merauke, which has been advocating for some of the communities affected by Korindo’s operations, said he was surprised about the letter to the FSC. He said the company had previously shown a willingness to remedy its mistakes.

“I was surprised because why did the company threaten [the FSC] using the cease-and-desist letter?” he told Mongabay. “Actually this harms Korindo itself. The more these problems remain, the more harmful they are.”

Luwy Leunufna, Korindo’s senior manager for resources management, denied that the company was threatening litigation against the FCS if it released the reports.

“That’s the perception of Mighty Earth,” he said. “I don’t know that they have made a conclusion like that.”

Luwy said the company had only asked the FSC to hold off on publishing the reports so that the company could clarify some points, without specifying what those points were.

“We just want to be given space for us to clarify,” he said. “If FSC ended up publishing [the reports], we’re not in a position [to forbid them]. We just told [the FSC] that we needed time to clarify.”

Luwy added that Korindo had nothing to hide. “We don’t close off any information. All information [that’s] needed, we’re open to submit them.”

A pile of wood that has been prepared to be burned in land controlled by Korindo in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty Earth
A pile of wood that has been prepared to be burned in land controlled by Korindo in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty Earth

Admission of ‘guilt’

Following its investigation, the FSC announced in July that Korindo would continue to be associated with the certification body, but that it must “secure remedy” for the damage it had done in Papua or else face expulsion from the organization.

It said it would “closely monitor Korindo’s progress of the measures and conditions stipulated by FSC. Failure to satisfactorily meet these conditions would be the basis for FSC to end its association with the company.”

After the announcement, Korindo acknowledged that some of its activities were not in full compliance with the certification body’s policies, including the “destruction of high conservation values in forestry operations” and “significant conversion of forests to plantations or non-forest use.” Korindo also said that its practice of obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of local communities might not have met FSC standards. The company said it would fix its mistakes to meet those standards.

“The Korindo Group agrees to collaborate in good faith and work with FSC in a constructive way and in a safe environment to implement appropriate measures and to take necessary actions in order to mitigate any past negative impacts,” the company said on its website.

Mighty Earth campaign director Phil Aikman said Korindo’s statement was a sign that it had “accepted its guilt.” However, Korindo’s letter contradicts that good will, he said, which might lead to the termination of Korindo’s association with the FSC.

“So on one hand, they want to work collaboratively with all stakeholders,” Aikman said. “On the other hand, they want to sue the investigators. So Korindo remains at risk of being disassociated and dispelled from FSC. If Korindo fails to solve these problems, then FSC executive board will cut ties [with Korindo].”

As such, Aikman said, Korindo must “remove the legal threats against FSC, and support FSC in publishing these reports. They need to accept their responsibilities for their wrongdoings.”

Aikman also urged Korindo to return customary lands, resolve social conflicts and grievances, and pay fair compensation to local communities for lost land, natural resources and livelihoods.

“I will say that having foreknowledge of these reports, the amount that they had effectively robbed from the communities run [into] hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “They also need to restore areas equivalent to how much they destroyed. So if Korindo wants to remain with FSC, all of its operation has to comply with FSC standards.”

An access road into one of Korindo’s concessions in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty Earth

Fixing the mistakes

Amo said publishing the reports would be a key step toward resolving the problems.

“It’s better to publish these investigative reports by FSC so that we can know where we have to solve,” he said.

Responding to the activists’ demand, the FSC’s Hartono said stakeholders didn’t have to wait for the reports to be published to start making changes.

“Tangible and meaningful progress in Korindo’s future operations can be achieved with or without publication of FSC’s investigation reports,” he said. “FSC is fully committed to continue the improvement process with Korindo for the benefit of Indonesia’s forests and its local Indigenous Communities as agreed by Korindo and presented by FSC in its conclusion on the case.”

Hartono said Korindo had started taking steps to fix its mistakes, but it’s too early to say whether there’s been progress on the ground yet.

“Apart from the disagreement on the publication of FSC’s investigation reports, Korindo are so far following the steps expected to prepare the improvements expected of them,” he said. “However, in terms of progress in the field, it is still too early in the process to expect specific progress. A roadmap, designed through a multi-stakeholder consultation, must first be designed and implemented for any initial progress to materialize.”


Clarification 9/27/2019:  The caption of the first photo in this article previously misidentified one of the people in the photo, and it has been updated to say he’s from Korindo. 


Banner image: Forest in West Papua. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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