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Indonesia’s point man for palm oil says no more plantations in Papua

A jungle river in Indonesian Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • The Indonesian minister in charge of investments has declared there will be no new permits approved for oil palm plantations in the country’s Papua region, and that crops such as nutmeg and coffee will instead be prioritized.
  • Luhut Pandjaitan, who owns several palm oil companies, said control of existing concessions in Papua was concentrated in the hands of foreign companies and wealthy domestic conglomerates and that their investments hadn’t always benefited the locals.
  • Activists are skeptical about the minister’s U-turn, given that Luhut has been the government’s most vocal defender of the palm oil industry amid the growing international backlash against the commodity and its associated environmental damage.
  • They also warn that the move might simply replace large-scale deforestation for palm oil with large-scale deforestation for other crops.

JAKARTA — A top Indonesian official has declared a halt to new oil palm plantations in the country’s heavily forested Papua region in favor of other, “greener,” crops, apparently contradicting his vigorous earlier defenses of the industry.

The remarks by Luhut Pandjaitan, the chief minister in charge of investments, including in the palm oil industry, come in the wake of a court verdict ordering the government to publish maps and concession-holder details for plantations in Papua.

“We agree that [we] no longer want palm oil development here [in Papua],” Luhut said on Feb. 27 as quoted by CNN Indonesia. “We’ve announced a moratorium on [new] palm oil [plantations] but now we’re strengthening it.”

Luhut, speaking during a visit to the district of Sorong in West Papua province, said the companies investing in the palm oil industry in Papua were predominantly foreign ones or those controlled by wealthy Indonesian businesses, and that their investments “don’t necessarily benefit local people.”

“Don’t [let] only rich people cut down the forests and destroy us all,” he added.

The rainforest of Boven Digoel. Image by Nanang Sujana for The Gecko Project.

‘Not being consistent’

Edi Sutrisno, the executive director of TuK Indonesia, an NGO that advocates for social justice in the agribusiness sector, questioned the about-face by Luhut, widely seen as the Indonesian government’s most vocal defender of the palm oil industry.

“We’re confused because he’s not being consistent,” Edi told Mongabay. “So far, he’s been the main supporter of palm oil. So why did he issue such a statement?”

Luhut has led Indonesia’s diplomatic battle against European Union’s plans to end recognition of palm oil as a biofuel by 2030, even threatening to withdraw Indonesia from the Paris climate agreement in retaliation. He also owns, through his family-run conglomerate, a string of palm oil companies. Last year, he declared palm oil a key commodity for Indonesia, which is the world’s top producer, and credited the industry with helping to alleviate poverty. (An estimated 20 million Indonesians are engaged in the palm oil industry.)

“We’ll fight whoever hampers the development of the palm oil industry in Indonesia,” Luhut said last April as quoted by local media. “The palm oil industry has played a significant role in reducing the poverty rate and creating jobs.”

Papua is home to a large variety of indigenous communities and Indonesia’s last great expanse of tropical rainforest. It’s an area increasingly targeted by the plantation and logging companies that have depleted much of the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.

The combined area of oil palm concessions in the Papua region, comprised of the provinces of West Papua and Papua, is 18,099 square kilometers (6,988 square miles), according to the latest figure from Papua Atlas. Papua Atlas is a real-time interactive map showing the spread of plantations and roads in Papua region developed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

A fifth of that figure, or 3,914 km2 (1,510 mi2), was controlled by just seven conglomerates as of 2017, according to a report by TuK Indonesia. That figure includes both developed (cleared) and undeveloped land.

“These figures show that palm oil plantation development in … Papua is almost exclusively in the hands of tycoon-controlled groups,” TuK Indonesia said in its report.

The location of the Papua region in Indonesia.

‘There’s no point’

Luhut said there were other crops better suited for the Papua region than oil palm, such as nutmeg, coffee, cacao and seaweed, which he presented to potential investors during his visit to Sorong in a “green investment” pitch.

“With green investment, people will start economic activities,” Luhut said as reported by CNN Indonesia. “The nature-based economy [will] grow and people can reap social benefits from it.”

He added the concept of green investment would contribute to protecting the forests of Papua, home to the third-largest expanse of tropical forest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo Basin, and maintain the region as an important carbon sink in the fight against climate change. The plan calls for $200 million in investments, said to directly benefit 60,000 households in the Papua region. He said Starbucks had agreed to invest there.

But activists are skeptical about the proposed switch, raising concerns that large-scale deforestation for palm plantations will simply be replaced by large-scale deforestation for other crops.

Franky Samperante, the director of Pusaka, an NGO that works with indigenous communities across Indonesia, said the problem with industrial-scale agriculture in Papua was not the commodity, but the development model. The top-down model as it works now, he said, fails to prioritize the needs of the local and indigenous communities, and fails to recognize their rights.

He cited the example of nutmeg, now being grown on land from which indigenous tribes were evicted in the district of Fakfak in West Papua province.

“So Luhut’s statement needs to be clarified,” Franky told Mongabay. “Green investment doesn’t only mean sustainable but we also need to ask who does it side with? If it’s only green but doesn’t side with the people, then there’s no point.”

The governor of West Papua, Dominggus Madacan, also advised residents against selling out their land to investors. He said history had shown that those who did so were inevitably impacted by deforestation and environmental degradation, including landslides.

“If you sell the land, the trees all around will be cut down and you’ll be left with bare land,” Dominggus said in Manokwari district on Feb. 25. “Then when disaster strikes, who will you blame?”

Forest in West Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Forest in West Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

‘Textbook land grab’

Edi said the plan to invest in crops other than palm oil was similar to the government’s Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) program, launched in 2011 to turn Papua’s Merauke district into the “future breadbasket of Indonesia.” That project, pitched by the government as the answer to Indonesia’s food security needs, has become a “textbook land grab,” activists say.

Only two of the 10 proposed blocks in the MIFEE project are supposed to include oil palm, but Greenpeace has noted that “significantly” more oil palm concessions will be included.

“They said that MIFEE was aimed to develop rice fields, but instead it’s oil palm plantations that are being developed,” Edi said. “Don’t let the statement [by Luhut] be a manipulation to make it seem like other commodities will be developed to make the public open to the idea, when in the end it’s all about palm oil.”

He said that despite the talk of prioritizing other crops deemed to be “green,” the fact remains that palm oil continues to be the most privileged in terms of incentives and other favorable policies offered by the government.

“The tendency is for the government to give incentives only for palm oil, not for other commodities,” Edi said. “So if civil society is skeptical, it’s normal because we don’t see incentives for other crops, such as cacao. Are there any factories to process cacao in Papua?”

Franky said he was concerned the voices of indigenous Papuans would be silenced, as they have been during the palm oil rush, under the plan to attract “green investments” to the region.

“In the meeting [on green investment in Sorong], I didn’t see representatives from local communities,” he said. “I only saw representatives from the local government. So I don’t know what the people think about it. The voices so far continue to be those of the central [government] and the investors there.”

A palm oil plantation in Indonesia Papua. Photo by Mighty Earth.

Enforcing the moratorium

Franky said that if Luhut was serious, he should follow up his latest stance with concrete action.

“There needs to be a strong policy to support Luhut’s statement,” he said. “We can’t just accept a statement from an official who’s a politician and has investments there.”

He said there needed to be stronger enforcement of a prevailing moratorium on issuing new plantation permits, as well as greater scrutiny of existing permits. President Joko Widodo imposed the moratorium in September 2018 in response to fires in 2015 that razed large swaths of forest, including inside oil palm concessions. The moratorium is expected to end no later than September 2021.

But enforcement of the moratorium has been patchy, according to a report by Pusaka. It shows that the agrarian ministry, in charge of approving the plantation permits known as HGU, issued one to the company PT Permata Nusa Mandiri for a concession Papua’s Jayapura district in November 2018 — two months after the moratorium was enacted. The report also identified continued instances of deforestation in areas earmarked for plantations, with 2,285 km2 (882 mi2) of forest cleared last year.

Given how much land has already been allocated for oil palm plantations, the government must conduct a sweeping review of the issued permits and do more to recognize indigenous claims to disputed land, Franky said. Short of that, he said, Luhut’s statement will ring hollow.

The government’s lack of recognition indigenous land rights is the missing key to the development of Papua, Franky said. Indonesia is home to hundreds of indigenous groups, but for decades their land rights were trumped by state control over all public land in the country. In 2013, a historic Constitutional Court ruling removed customary forests from under state control. Since then, President Widodo has vowed to grant customary forest ownership titles to indigenous groups.

The Papua region, covering the western half of the island of New Guinea, is home to the greatest number of indigenous groups in Indonesia, but none have been granted titles to their ancestral forests. In Papua province alone, an estimated 6,400 km2 (2,500 mi2) of forest qualify as customary land.


Banner image: A jungle river in Indonesian Papua. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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