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Palm oil grower looks to make amends for past deforestation in Indonesia

Deforested peat forest in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A major palm oil grower in Indonesia plans to rehabilitate 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) in Borneo and New Guinea to make up for its past deforestation and peatland clearing.
  • The recovery by KPN Plantation will be achieved through peat rewetting, reforestation, and assisting local communities to secure land tenure and access rights.
  • Environmentalists have lauded the plan, but noted that challenges remain in the monitoring and implementation of the plan.

JAKARTA — One of the biggest palm oil growers in Indonesia has announced a plan to rehabilitate an area half the size of New York City to atone for its past clearing of rainforests and peatlands.

KPN Plantation, formerly known as Gama Plantation until 2019, recently published a document detailing its plan to rehabilitate 38,000 hectares (nearly 94,000 acres) on the islands of Borneo and New Guinea.

“Our recovery efforts strive to compensate for the environmental impact of past non-compliant land development, such as biodiversity loss and carbon emissions caused by deforestation and peatland drainage,” KPN said in its recovery plan document.

The plan will be carried out at least until the group’s plantation licenses expire — up to 35 years from now — and is focused on two locations: Kubu Raya district in the Bornean province of West Kalimantan, and Merauke district in Papua province, on the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.

The recovery will be achieved through peat rewetting, reforestation, and assisting local communities to secure tenure and access rights, the company said. It added it was liable for the degradation of 11,900 hectares (29,400 acres) of rainforest and peatland since 2015; it counts cleared peatland area as double due to the high carbon value of peat.

KPN’s biggest liability lies in the heavily forested Papua region, home to 38% of Indonesia’s remaining rainforest and one of most biodiverse regions on the planet.

The group had cleared 5,771 hectares (14,260 acres) of rainforest there to make way for its plantations, eventually planting 90% of that area.

In its recovery plan, KPN said that in the past it “did not give due consideration to the impact on sustainability” in its operations in Papua.

According to an investigation by Greenpeace in 2018, KPN (back when it was known as Gama) cleared 21,500 hectares (53,130 acres) of rainforest in Papua and West Kalimantan from 2013 to 2018.

Following the investigation, some buyers, including Wilmar, dropped Gama from their supply chains. Gama subsequently declared a group-wide moratorium on new land development and adopted a “no deforestation, no peatland, no exploitation” (NDPE) policy.

While KPN has been associated with deforestation since 2013, its recovery plan sets 2015 as the cutoff year, meaning it doesn’t count deforestation prior to that.

The restoration commitment covers an area three times the size of forest KPN said it’s liable for clearing.

“This is in part because we believe that we are able to help conserve and restore more forest,” KPN chief operating officer Hendri Saksti said in the recovery plan document. “But we simultaneously need to hedge our risk that not all intervention sites will be successful in the long term.”

Environmentalists have lauded KPN’s restoration plan, calling it an integral part of the private sector’s sustainability commitment and NDPE policies. However, they note that challenges remain in the monitoring and implementation of the plan.

“This move is a long time coming,” Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaign head Kiki Taufik told Mongabay. “Although the challenge is how to monitor [the implementation of the plan] and to involve independent parties in the implementation.”

Franky Samperante, the director of Pusaka, an NGO that works with Indigenous communities across Indonesia, said civil society should also be involved in the monitoring of the plan.

“We have to be able to monitor it,” he told Mongabay. “We can’t let the commitment be merely stated to the public through the media without actual implementation on the ground.”

In its document, KPN said it would involve the Earthqualizer Foundation, based near the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to closely monitor forest cover based on the recovery map both through imagery comparison over time and field reports. KPN said it would also monitor water tables and land subsidence beyond its concessions within the wider landscape.

Deforestation in West Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.


Besides robust monitoring, there are other things that KPN will have to pay attention to in order for the restoration work to be effective, according to activists.

One of them is to not limit restoration work to the group’s concessions. In West Kalimantan, this means including the whole peat landscape, since KPN’s concession  sits atop a large and deep peat dome.

Kiki said companies in Indonesia are mandated by the government to conserve and sustainably manage their peat concessions by maintaining the groundwater table at 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) below surface level in order to prevent peatlands from drying out and becoming susceptible to burning.

That means that, regardless of its recovery commitment, KPN is already obliged to keep its peat concessions healthy and not degraded anyway, Kiki said. But if it’s truly serious about restoring its degraded peat concessions, it should go the extra mile by restoring the whole peat ecosystem, not just its concessions, Kiki added.

“The argument is that if the restoration is limited to its concession, then it won’t have an impact, or the impact would be limited, and thus they need to expand the scope [of the restoration],” he said.

In its restoration plan, KPN acknowledged the importance of restoring and conserving the whole peat landscape, rather than just its concession in West Kalimantan, saying that its efforts likely won’t be successful “if we limited the scope to our plantation.”

“Groundwater drainage by neighboring companies and fire outbreak caused by villagers’ planting or hunting could completely undermine these efforts. Similarly, our interventions such as blocking canals could adversely impact others,” it said.

Therefore, KPN said, it will involve other stakeholders, such as local communities and neighboring companies, to conserve forest and peatlands in the wider landscape. This multi-stakeholder approach would enable KPN to carry out more effective restoration work, such as establishing forest connectivity between its plantations and neighboring villages, it added.

The plan prescribes the same approach for its concession in Papua, where KPN is working with a much larger area of remaining natural forest, including two large protected areas directly adjacent to its plantation estates. The recovery there aims to safeguard the connectivity between the protected areas.

KPN said it would also promote alternative livelihoods for neighboring communities to encourage them to protect their surrounding forests.

Pusaka’s Franky said it’s important that such engagement allow the communities to decide which trees or crops are best for their livelihoods and the environment. In the case of Papua, KPN said it’s focusing on sago, a native palm that’s a staple food for many Indigenous Papuans. KPN is also experimenting with integrating cattle farming in its oil palm plantations.

“We will collaborate to protect and make use of almost 495 hectares [1,220 acres] of sago groves for subsistence consumption and explore possibilities to ease sago processing and marketing of any excess production,” KPN said.

Kiki of Greenpeace said KPN should also try to avert potential land conflicts with communities in the restoration areas by consulting with the locals to obtain their free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC. And if there are communities that claim that parts of the group’s concessions are obtained without their FPIC, then KPN should relinquish the contested lands, he added.

Kiki said existing government programs such as social forestry and agrarian reform aren’t sufficiently effective in giving local and Indigenous communities greater access to land.

“These programs aren’t enough to ensure that the agrarian problems can be solved in a just way,” he said.

Kiki also said KPN shouldn’t use the restoration plan as an excuse to clear rainforests elsewhere, which would violate its own NDPE policy and group-wide moratorium on new land clearing.

“Do they still clear forests elsewhere? If so, then the restoration work is meaningless,” he said.

Using the forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas, Kiki said Greenpeace had detected around 250 hectares (617 acres) of forest loss within KPN’s plantations in West Kalimantan and Papua between January 2020 and June 2021.

“This needs to be questioned,” he said. “Even if the forest loss is small, it’s spread out in many of their concessions in Kalimantan and Papua.”


Banner image: Deforested peat forest in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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