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Second Indonesian province moves to retake forests from palm oil companies

Land planted with oil palms by PT Megakarya Jaya Raya, near where the Digul River snakes through the landscape. Image by Nanang Sujana for The Gecko Project and Mongabay.

  • The government of Indonesia’s Papua province has recommended that district officials revoke the permits of 35 of the 54 oil palm concessions operating there.
  • These concessions cover a combined 522,397 hectares (1.29 million acres) of land, and are being targeted for revocation because of a range of administrative violations by the license holders.
  • If revoked, the large swaths of forests still standing inside these concessions could be saved from being cleared and converted into plantations, and returned to Indigenous communities, activists say.
  • The move by the Papua government mirrors a round of revocations ordered last year by the government of neighboring West Papua province, which has also successfully warded off lawsuits filed by affected companies.

JAKARTA — Authorities in Indonesia’s Papua province have recommended the revocation of licenses for 35 out of the 54 oil palm concessions operating there.

The move follows an evaluation of the licenses carried out by the provincial government since 2019, and mirrors a similar spate of revocations in neighboring West Papua province.

The affected concessions in Papua cover a combined area of 522,397 hectares (1.29 million acres), or more than half of the area dedicated to oil palms in the province.

Karel Yarangga, head of the plantation department at the provincial agricultural agency, said the license audit had found a range of administrative violations by the companies in question. Some companies were revealed not to have what’s known as a location permit, one of several needed by plantation operators before they can start planting. In some cases, the location permits had expired. Others lacked business plantation permits (IUP) and right-to-cultivate permits (HGU).

The concessions are spread across eight districts in Papua province, with the highest number, 14, located in Boven Digoel district. The others are in Jayapura (six concessions), Keerom (five), Sarmi (three), Mappi, Merauke and Nabire with two each, and Mimika with one.

“We’ve submitted recommendations to the district heads to follow up [by] revoking [the permits of the 35 companies],” Karel said, adding that the deadline for following up is the end of June.

A person familiar with the audit process said representatives from the companies had been summoned several times to clarify some of the findings late last year. However, the findings are still preliminary, with many points needing to be verified by the companies and other parties, the person said.

That means the audit process might still take a long time to be completed, with each case needing a different solution, the person told Mongabay.

Sekar Banjaran Aji, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, said it’s important that the district governments follow through on the provincial government’s recommendation to revoke the permits. She noted that some districts heads are set to leave office later this year, leaving little time to delay a decision.

She cited the case of Jayapura, where district head Mathius Awoitauw leaves office in December.

“So it’s only a matter of months,” Sekar told Mongabay.

Once the current district heads leave office, it might be more difficult to get the permits revoked, with their successors likely to need more time to settle into their position and study each case.

“Our hope is for the permits to be revoked as soon as possible because if not, then we will lose the momentum,” Sekar said.

The island of New Guinea is split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Legal fears

There’s also the potential for the affected companies to file lawsuits in response to having their permits revoked, as several have done — all unsuccessfully — in West Papua province.

The West Papua government began its license audit in 2018, and, like in Papua province, found widespread administrative and legal violations, including missing licenses and abandoned land. The result of that audit has been the revocation of 16 plantation concessions, covering a combined 340,000 hectares (840,000 acres) of land.

Three of the affected companies in West Papua’s Sorong district — PT Inti Kebun Lestari (IKL), PT Papua Lestari Abadi (PLA) and PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS) — then decided to sue the district head, Johny Kamuru in mid-2021. A court in Jayapura dismissed all the lawsuits, but IKL appealed to a higher court, which found in its favor. Sorong’s Johny has since challenged that ruling at the Supreme Court.

Sekar of Greenpeace Indonesia said the Sorong lawsuits might make district heads in Papua more cautious and fearful of revoking concessions in their jurisdictions.

The person familiar with the audit process in Papua said the Sorong lawsuits had affected the audit in Papua, making the government there take extra precautions to minimize the risk of getting sued. The measures included calling in company representatives for clarification, reconciling government and company data, and issuing them a warning first before recommending a revocation of their permits.

Jayapura district head Mathius said he had asked academics at Cenderawasih University to conduct a legal analysis of the permits, in an effort to obviate any grounds for a future lawsuit.

“At least, this is an effort to anticipate if there’s legal action [from companies whose permits are revoked], like what’s been done by palm oil firms in Sorong district,” Mathius said.

A newly opened oil palm plantation site in Papua. Image by Asrida Elisabeth/ Mongabay Indonesia.

Indigenous lands and forests

Hariadi Kartodihardjo, a lecturer in forestry policy at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), called on the government to ensure that once the oil palm concessions are revoked, the lands will be given to the Indigenous peoples in Papua so that they can improve their livelihoods.

“Because if there are many [concessions revoked], but we’re not ready [to follow up], then it’ll be useless since the concessions will be allocated to other companies,” he told Mongabay.

Septer Manufandu, executive secretary of the NGO Papua Peoples Network for Natural Resources (Jerat), said the audit in Papua is a good thing. He blamed oil palm plantations for destroying the natural forests that the region’s Indigenous peoples have depended on for generations.

Maikel Primus Peuki, chair of the Papua chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), agreed that palm oil production is a key contributor to deforestation in Papua.

“The proliferation of plantations caused Papuans to become laborers on their own lands,” he told local media. “Not to mention the bad impact of plantations on the environment, including pollution caused by [the use of] pesticides.”

Deforestation in Papua averaged nearly 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) per year between 2000 and 2019, and could increase as many concessions include large swaths of forest that haven’t been cleared yet. The extent of primary rainforest inside oil palm concessions in Papua province stands at 685,388 hectares (1.69 million acres), according to data from Greenpeace  — an area four and a half times the size of London.

These forests store an estimated 71.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“If these forests are all cleared, it’ll become an explosion of carbon bomb,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Syahrul Fitra told Mongabay. “This will exacerbate the climate crisis.”

That makes the permit evaluation carried out by the Papua government crucial in saving these intact forests, he said, especially in the case of concessions that lack an HGU permit, which means the operators likely haven’t started clearing the land yet for planting.

Syahrul said it’s also important for the government to adopt a policy that prohibits clearing all natural forests, regardless of whether they fall within a concession. This could be achieved, he said, with a moratorium on clearing forests for oil palm plantations.

The government had imposed a moratorium from September 2018 to September 2021 on issuing new palm oil licenses. The policy was aimed at slowing down plantation-driven deforestation by putting a halt on the expansion of oil palm plantations and encouraging efforts to boost the productivity of existing plantations.

Syahrul said it’s a shame the government allowed the moratorium to expire last year, adding that extending it could have contributed to saving the remaining rainforests inside oil palm concessions.

“[Without a moratorium], companies will surely keep expanding,” he said. “And the current situation of cooking oil [whose prices have been rising] and biofuel [whose production is being increased] will push [companies] to clear forests [to make way for plantations].”

Sekar agreed that the least the government could do is impose a moratorium on plantation activity until the audit is finished. This way, the companies will be prohibited from clearing forests and Indigenous lands in their concessions.

This will also give the government time to map the forests and ancestral lands inside the concessions.

“The condition of the lands and forests has to be examined in detail,” she said. “There are endemic species and biodiversity that have to be well protected in the forests of Papua. If these forests are gone, what will happen with the climate crisis? What about the government’s commitment to protect the forests [in Papua]? This commitment will be broken if [land clearing for oil palm cultivation] proceeds.”

 

Banner image: Land planted with oil palms by PT Megakarya Jaya Raya, near where the Digul River snakes through the landscape. Image by Nanang Sujana for The Gecko Project and Mongabay.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: The true owner of a giant palm oil project sited controversially among deep Papuan rainforest has been hidden by a web of corporate secrecy for more than a decade, listen here:

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