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Activists seek purge after Indonesia court rules forest plantations illegal

Oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Indonesia’s Supreme Court has struck down a legal provision that effectively gave a free pass to plantation companies operating illegally inside protected forests.
  • All areas designated as forest are off-limits to plantations under Indonesian law, but permits are easily obtainable through local officials who tend to bypass the legal requirements and often even solicit bribes.
  • Activists say the government must now act on the ruling by cracking down on all violating companies.

JAKARTA — Environmental activists have called on the Indonesian government to swiftly crack down on plantation companies operating in protected forests, after the country’s highest court ruled such activities illegal.

The Supreme Court ruling, delivered at the end of 2019, was the culmination of a legal challenge filed by green activists against a controversial provision in a 2015 regulation issued by President Joko Widodo. The provision, aimed at making it easier for forest areas to be degazetted for plantations, allowed companies with plantation permits for concessions that include protected forests to continue operating until the end of the crop cycle.

Plaintiffs from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and a legal aid institute in Borneo argued that the provision effectively whitewashed the violation and allowed the companies to act with impunity. Indonesian law clearly prohibits plantation activity in all areas designated as forest, and not just protected forests, but these permits are typically issued by local authorities bypassing the legal requirements, and often in exchange for bribes.

The activists had also argued the “one last crop cycle” clause wasn’t some benign grace period that would minimize the environmental damage already done, given that oil palms, the predominant crop involved in such violations, have a life cycle of 25 to 30 years.

Even Sembiring, the head of policy analysis at Walhi, called the newly annulled provision a transparently pro-business concession to large-scale plantation companies. He said this put it at odds with the president’s 2014 campaign platform that identified environmental destruction as the source of humanitarian crisis in Indonesia.

“But this regulation doesn’t reflect that at all,” Even said. “Instead, it supports investments that violate the law. So this [regulation] isn’t in the public’s interest.”

He said that with the Supreme Court having now ruled on the matter, the government should immediately carry out a nationwide review of plantation permits issued in protected forest areas.

A palm plantation in Harapan forest which is a protected area designated for a restoration program. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Permit review needed

Plantation permits have been issued covering a total 1,028 square kilometers (396 square miles) of protected forests throughout Indonesia, according to an analysis by the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) using 2015 data. That represents an area greater than the land mass of New York City.

Most of these permits are in the Bornean province of West Kalimantan, encompassing 649 km2 (250 mi2) of protected forests. The Kalimantan Legal Aid Association (PBH), a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit with Walhi, has identified at least 13 companies with permits in protected forests in the province and reported them to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Among these is PT Rezeki Kencana, a member of China’s Tianjin Julong group. Rezeki has operated in West Kalimantan’s Kubu Raya district since 2010. Parts of the company’s oil palm plantation overlap with the Sungai Arus Deras forest, which has protected status. As of 2017, all of forest has been cleared, replaced by rows of oil palm trees, according to monitoring by FWI.

However, the company hasn’t faced any sanctions, said PBH Kalimantan executive director Khairuddin. He said law enforcers appeared hesitant to crack down on plantation companies operating inside protected forests because of the provision in the presidential regulation.

“As far as we know, there hasn’t been any law enforcement by the police or the Ministry of Environment and Forestry against oil palm plantations located in forest areas with conservation and/or protected functions,” Khairuddin said. “In our opinion, the clause is one of the factors hampering law enforcement.”

With the provision now quashed by the Supreme Court, there’s no reason for the government and law enforcers to not start prosecuting the violating companies, Walhi’s Even said.

However, Indonesia’s Byzantine court bureaucracy requires that a physical copy of the verdict be received and acknowledged by all involved parties before a ruling can be acted on. In this case, environment ministry spokesman Djati Witjaksono Hadi said his office had not received a copy of the ruling from the Supreme Court.

“The ministry will take the necessary steps only after we have received the official ruling,” he said as quoted by Reuters.

Once that happens, any subsequent review of plantation permits should be incorporated into a wider existing moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations, Even said. The moratorium, issued by the president in 2018 and expected to remain in force for a maximum of three years, has resulted in a freeze on the issuance of permits covering a combined 16,000 km2 (6,200 mi2) of forest areas for plantations.

“The president, the home affairs minister and the environment and forestry minister should issue an order to review plantation permits in protected forest areas [following the verdict],” Even said, “so that there won’t be any more permissiveness in allowing plantations [inside protected forest areas].”


Correction 11/13/2020:  The article previously stated that PT Rezeki Kencana is a supplier to Wilmar. However, Wilmar clarified that PT Rezeki Kencana stopped being a supplier to the company since 2016.


Banner image: Oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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