- Al Jazeera’s 101 East program recently aired a documentary about allegedly fraudulent land deals on Indonesian part of New Guinea, produced as part of a collaboration with Mongabay, The Gecko Project and the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa.
One day around 2010, Agustinus Tomba and his neighbors heard the sound of heavy machinery in their ancestral forest, in the Indonesian province of Papua.
When they went to see what was going on, they found a palm oil company, a subsidiary of a conglomerate called the Korindo Group, clearing their land.
“We were shocked when the company appeared,” said Agustinus, a member of the Mandobo tribe. “We tried to stop them. But they said the rights to our land had been sold, that it belonged to them.”
Agustinus’s testimony was featured in a recent documentary by 101 East, Al Jazeera’s Asia-Pacific current affairs program, about allegations of fraud and human rights abuses by two palm oil conglomerates operating in Papua: Korindo and the POSCO Group.
101 East produced the film, “Selling Out West Papua,” as part of a collaboration with Mongabay, The Gecko Project, and the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa. On the day it premiered, The Gecko Project and Mongabay published our own article examining a $22 million “consultancy” payment Korindo had made in connection with one of its plantations in Papua, a haven of rainforests and biodiversity.
Nearly a dozen anti-corruption experts we interviewed said the payment bore the hallmarks of a common ruse deployed in major transnational corruption schemes in which sham consultants are used to channel money to public officials in exchange for permits or contracts.
While it was impossible to tell if the payment had financed bribery without using powers available only to law enforcement, they said, it merited investigation by authorities. Korindo has denied any involvement in bribery or any wrongdoing in this matter.
Both the article and the documentary homed in on a Seoul-born, naturalized Indonesian man named Kim Nam Ku, whom Korindo told us had received the $22 million in exchange for his shares in a local company. We examined how the investors had dealt with Indigenous Marind and Mandobo communities and allegations that locals had been paid a pittance for their lands and trees while the conglomerates exported products worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the cultures of the Marind and Mandobo, land cannot be ceded to outsiders without the community’s consent. Agustinus was one of several people who told us the companies had struck deals with individuals who held no authority to represent their clan, or who purported to own lands actually belonging to another clan.
Linus Omba, a member of the Mandobo tribe, said land belonging to his clan had been fraudulently sold to PT Bio Inti Agrindo (BIA), a company set up by Kim Nam Ku and later sold to POSCO, by two members of the Marind tribe for a total of $12,000.
“This was an injustice for all the Mandobo people of this forest,” Linus said. “The company didn’t follow the proper procedure.”
One of the two men, Damianus Yaone, said in an interview that he thought he had been signing away his own community’s lands.
“I have regrets,” Damianus said. “I believe that they deceived me. I think it was fraud.”
The other, Stefanus Mahuze, told us he had been effectively “forced” to agree to the deal, given the presence of a local military commander and senior government official at the meeting where the papers were signed.
POSCO, which bought the company after the deal took place, denied it was fraudulent, telling us that a due diligence review it conducted before purchasing PT BIA had turned up no disputes with local communities.
“The palm oil companies always involve the military and police when they face us,” Linus Omba said. “It’s to make us feel uncomfortable.”
Linus saw firsthand the degree to which soldiers would go to protect the companies’ assets. One day in August 2016, he joined a group of villagers in setting up a roadblock near PT BIA, as a means of sanctioning the firm in the Mandobo way.
Before long, members of the army special forces arrived on the scene. Amateur video shows soldiers firing a rifle in a confrontation with the tribespeople.
“I heard a ‘whoosh’ past my ear,” Linus recalled. “They shot five times. Afterwards, we collected the bullet casings and reported the incident to the district police.”
POSCO denied any allegations of misconduct.
“PT BIA under no circumstance engages in military activity within Papua, nor can it,” the conglomerate told us.
To learn more, watch the 101 East film, “Selling Out West Papua,” and read our investigation, “The Consultant: Why did a palm oil conglomerate pay $22m to an unnamed ‘expert’ in Papua?”
Banner: A woman collects oil palm fruit on an oil palm estate in southern Papua. Image by Albertus Vembrianto for Mongabay and The Gecko Project.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.