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State neglect means Indigenous Papuans’ victory over palm oil firm is shaky

Sorong district head Johnny Kamuru talks to Indigenous Moi peoples in Dela village, Sorong, West Papua Barat. Image by Yoel Mugi.

  • Local authorities in Indonesia’s West Papua province have revoked the permits for an 11,475-hectare (28,355-acre) oil palm concession because it includes a forest that’s sacred to the Indigenous Moi people.
  • Activists have welcomed the move but note that the permits could have been scrapped much sooner for various other reasons, including a violation of plantation size limits.
  • They also criticized the central government, specifically the environment ministry, for not reaffirming the district government’s recognition of the Moi people’s Indigenous land rights, which would have made the forest off-limits to commercial exploitation.
  • Without this official recognition from the central government, the forest can still be licensed out for agriculture, activists point out.

JAKARTA — Indigenous rights activists have welcomed the cancellation of an oil palm plantation permit on Indigenous land in Indonesia’s Papua region. They say the case is a prime example of the need to officially recognize Indigenous land rights.

On Aug. 14, the head of Sorong district in the province of West Papua issued a series of decrees revoking the various permits issued since 2011 to PT Mega Mustika Plantation (MMP) for 11,475 hectares (28,355 acres) of land in the district.

The move came in response to a long-running campaign by the Indigenous Moi people against MMP and two other plantation companies — PT Inti Kebun Lestari (IKL) and PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS) — with concessions on the group’s ancestral lands.

MMP’s concession included the Klaso forest, which the Moi consider a sacred part of their creation myth.

“After a thorough study on oil palm plantation in Klaso, it’s decided to return [the area] to the citizens who own the rights to the ancestral land,” Johnny Kamuru, the Sorong district chief, said after personally handing over copies of the decrees revoking MMP’s permits to the Klaso Indigenous council chief, Danci Ulimpa.

Franky Samperante, the executive director of the NGO Pusaka, which advocates for Indigenous rights across Indonesia, welcomed the decision.

“The forests in Klaso are the place where the Moi Indigenous tribe get their education from,” he told Mongabay. “It’s for Indigenous education and it’s sacred.”

Franky noted that Sorong district had a bylaw in place since 2017 recognizing the Moi people’s Indigenous status and protecting them. The bylaw was followed by a guideline, issued by Johnny earlier this year, that spells out the details of this recognition and protection of their ancestral land rights.

Based on the bylaw alone, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry should have been able to sign a decree annulling the environment permit for the concession — one of the three permits issued to MMP since 2011 — three years ago, Franky said. He added the Moi had submitted a request to that end in 2018, but the ministry never took action.

“The ministry should have been in sync with the district government,” he said.

Map of Moi customary forests.

Exceeding the size limit

There are other reasons MMP should never have been granted the concession in the first place, activists say.

Indonesian law limits the amount of plantation estate that a company can control to 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) per province, or 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) in the case of Papua and West Papua provinces. In the Bornean province of West Kalimantan, local authorities recently revoked the permits of seven plantation companies for exceeding the size limit.

In West Papua, MMP’s parent company, Ciptana Group, controls 71,445 hectares (176,544 acres) of land — nearly the size of New York City — through its four subsidiaries, according to data from Pusaka. That puts it in violation of the size limit.

The spread of plantations in Papua and elsewhere should also have been checked by a moratorium issued by the president in 2018 on the granting of new licenses for oil palm concessions. And for the Papua region specifically, a top official earlier this year declared that licenses for other crops would be given preference over oil palms. Luhut Pandjaitan, the chief minister in charge of investments, including in the palm oil industry, declared the halt on new oil palm plantations.

Indigenous Moi peoples protest in front of the Sorong district government office on August 9, 2020. Image by Natalia Laurensia Carmelia Yewen / Mongabay Indonesia

Plantation permit review

As part of the moratorium, local governments are required to review the permits of existing oil palm plantations operating in their jurisdictions. But progress on this front has been slow, said Achmad Surambo, deputy director of Sawit Watch, an independent industry watchdog.

He noted that all that the central government had managed to achieve in the two years since the moratorium came into force was confirm the total size of oil palm plantations nationwide, which stands at 16.38 million hectares (40.48 million acres) — an area half the size of neighboring Malaysia. A lack of transparency in the review process also means it’s unclear if the Sorong district head’s decision to revoke MMP’s permits is a part of the moratorium, Achmad said.

“If we ask local heads why they aren’t conducting permit reviews, they’ll ask back ‘where’s the technical guideline and where’s the budget?’” Achmad told Mongabay. “The moratorium doesn’t say who has to bear the cost of the review, so the policy is half-baked.”

Officials in West Papua say they’ve been proactive about reviewing permits for existing plantations. Heri Wijayanto, who heads the provincial agriculture department, said the permits of all 18 concession holders currently operating there are under review. Together, they control 490,191 hectares (1,21 million acres) of land. Half of the concession holders have not yet started clearing their land for planting; five have already done so and are now planting, and the remaining four are already harvesting palm fruit.

Heri said the results of the permit reviews can’t be published yet because some information is still missing and needs to be verified.

Bustar Maitar, the executive director of the environmental NGO Econusa, which is working with the West Papua government on the reviews, said disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made the process more challenging. This is especially the case for on-the-ground checks, which have been hampered by social-distancing rules, he said.

Bustar added that once the assessments are complete, possibly by the end of this year, the reviewers will submit their recommendations to the West Papua governor and the district heads on which permits, if any, should be revoked.

Lowland rainforest in West Papua. Along with neighboring Papua province, it holds more than a third of Indonesia’s intact forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Lowland rainforest in West Papua. Along with neighboring Papua province, it holds more than a third of Indonesia’s intact forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Not out of the woods yet

The victory for the Moi tribe over MMP doesn’t mean their sacred Klaso forest is out of danger. The land will continue to be a target of commercial interests for as long as the government refuses to recognize it as Indigenous land, activists say.

The process of gaining official recognition is a tedious and time-consuming one that involves petitioning the district council to pass a bylaw. It took one community in another part of Indonesia five years to secure such a bylaw; in areas where local governments have already granted concessions on the land, it can take even longer, if at all.

The Moi are one of only a handful of Indigenous communities in Indonesia who have secured such a bylaw, which they obtained in 2017. But the bylaw isn’t enough. The environment ministry must then use that bylaw to issue a decree that essentially serves as the central government’s official recognition of the land as ancestral territory. When the land thus falls under the control and ownership of the community, and not the government, any government-issued permits — including for plantations — immediately become void.

The environment ministry, however, has failed to acknowledge the Sorong district government’s recognition of the Moi people’s Indigenous land rights, and so the Klaso forest continues to be classified as a state forest.

“The Moi have verified two ancestral forests in Klaso,” said Franky from Pusaka, “but there hasn’t been a response from the ministry.”

If the status of the ancestral land remains unchanged, the government can issue new permits to other companies, including for oil palms once the moratorium ends next year, said Achmad from Sawit Watch.

“It’s happened before, where plantation permits were revoked but then new ones were given to other companies later,” he said.


Banner image: Sorong district head Johnny Kamuru talks to Indigenous Moi peoples in Dela village, Sorong, West Papua Barat. Image by Yoel Mugi.


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