A company owned by a politically connected Indonesian family and an investor from New Zealand has begun clearing rainforest within an area slated to become the world’s largest oil palm plantation.The project will push industrial agriculture deep into the primary rainforests of southern Papua, but has been plagued by allegations of illegality.While the new investors represent a break from those allegations, the government’s failure to investigate them has ongoing consequences. This article was co-published with The Gecko Project. A new company has begun clearing rainforest in an area of Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province earmarked to become the world’s largest oil palm plantation, in a vast project that has been mired in allegations of lawbreaking. If seen through to completion, the Tanah Merah project will generate an estimated $6 billion in timber and create a plantation almost twice the size of London, at the heart of the largest tract of intact rainforest left in Asia. It will also release an immense amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, at a time when Indonesia has committed to reducing emissions from deforestation. Since March of last year, the Digoel Agri Group, founded by a politically connected Jakarta family and now backed by an investor from New Zealand, has bulldozed 170 hectares (420 acres) of rainforest in a section of the project previously spared from land clearing, satellite imagery shows. The clearance amounts to a fraction of the 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) allocated for the project, now controlled by several different conglomerates. But it signals that deforestation could quickly accelerate after a decade of false starts by other investors. A satellite view of Digoel Agri’s forest clearance, seen in late November 2019. Since it was first conceived in 2007, the rights to the project have changed hands several times, involving a string of investors who have deployed crude and complex corporate secrecy techniques to hide their identities. The licensing process for the project has been plagued by irregularities. A cross-border investigation by The Gecko Project, Mongabay, Malaysiakini and Tempo, published in November 2018, revealed that key permits were signed by an elected official who was simultaneously serving a prison sentence for embezzling state funds. A subsequent report found that officials believe other essential permits — for both the plantation and a giant sawmill to process the timber — were falsified. Two companies, majority-owned by anonymous firms registered in the United Arab Emirates, began operating on the basis of these permits, to the north of the land now held by Digoel Agri. In response to written questions from The Gecko Project and Mongabay they have denied the allegation that the permits were falsified. On paper, Digoel Agri’s involvement in the project represents a clean break from those allegations. The firm arrived on the scene after the suspect permits held by earlier investors were revoked and reassigned to it. Jackson Iqbal de Hesselle, 32, a member of the Rumangkang family, which is behind Digoel Agri, said its operations were clean. “We’re obeying the rules,” he said in a recent interview at the firm’s office in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. However, while there are no apparent links between Digoel Agri and the previous investors, its ability to operate is partly predicated on the allegedly compromised licensing process that went before. The legal basis of Digoel Agri’s activities rests partly on decrees rezoning the land to allow development, issued by the Ministry of Forestry in 2012, following requests from earlier investors. The applications were based on the plantation permits that were allegedly falsified. As of late last year, Indonesian authorities had yet to investigate the allegations, officials from several agencies said at the time. NGOs scrutinizing the project assert that officials rushed into reallocating the lands to new investors without properly considering the allegations of irregularities in the licensing process and the environmental and social impacts the project would have. Arie Rompas, the head of forest campaigns at Greenpeace Indonesia, called the Tanah Merah project a “public scandal” and said the permits underlying it should be examined and revoked. “There is still an opportunity to save this area,” he said.