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Trial of palm oil tycoon Surya Darmadi begins in Jakarta

  • Surya Darmadi returned to Indonesia on Aug. 15 and was arrested by awaiting officers at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
  • Indonesia’s Attorney General’s Office has estimated total losses amounting to almost $7 billion, including damages incurred by communities.
  • Environmental groups have spent decades documenting harmful activities by Surya’s companies.

Palm oil tycoon Surya Darmadi began trial in Jakarta on Thursday over an alleged corruption scheme that deforested tens of thousands of hectares on the island of Sumatra.

“He is very happy the file has been submitted to the court so that he can defend himself,” Surya’s lawyer, Juniver Girsang, told reporters on Wednesday.

Surya could have begun the process of clearing his name sooner had he not elected to spend eight years evading investigators probing one of Indonesia’s largest corruption cases.

Indonesia’s antigraft agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), named Surya a suspect in 2014 over a suspected 3 billion rupiah ($200,000) payment to the then-governor of Riau province, Annas Maamun, to amend a forestry regulation for the benefit of Surya’s company, PT Duta Palma.

Annas Maamun, the then-governor Riau province, was caught red-handed taking a bribe in 2014.

The KPK issued Surya with a travel ban in 2019, but the tycoon managed to flee abroad. He then resisted subsequent attempts to repatriate him by claiming medical problems.

On Aug. 1, the Attorney General’s Office named Surya a suspect over alleged payments to the then-head of Indragiri Hulu district in Riau, Raja Thamsir Rachman.

Thamsir, who helmed the district for two terms from 1999-2008, issued permits to five subsidiaries of PT Duta Palma to convert 37,000 hectares (91,000 acres) of forest into oil palm estates. The former district chief remains incarcerated on unrelated corruption convictions.

One of the Duta Palma plantations in Riau. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

The plantations are estimated to have produced revenue of around 600 billion rupiah ($40 million) per month.

Investigators had previously estimated total state losses at 78 trillion rupiah ($5.2 billion), but the attorney general has since produced a higher figure of 104.1 trillion rupiah ($7 billion) to account for losses directly and indirectly incurred by communities.

“The activities of PT Duta Palma Group resulted in: state losses, loss of rights of the people of Indragiri Hulu district who previously benefited from forest products to improve the economy, and damaged forest ecosystems,” Attorney General Burhanuddin said in a statement in August.

Environmental groups have long documented alleged abuses by Surya’s oil palm firm, including illegally using fire to clear land for planting.

Helena Varkkey, a political scientist at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, wrote in 2012 that Indonesia’s military retained a 30% ownership in PT Duta Palma.

Surya returned to Indonesia on a China Airlines flight from Taiwan on Aug. 15 and was arrested by awaiting officers from the Attorney General’s Office, which he had notified of his intention to return.

Surya Darmadi at the Attorney General’s Office. Image courtesy of the AGO.

Investigators have frozen PT Duta Palma’s bank accounts, transferred oil palm concessions to state-owned plantation firm PTPN V, and seized assets belonging to Surya in several provinces.

Indragiri Hulu lost about half of its old-growth forest in just 20 years (from 2001-2021), according to satellite data published by Global Forest Watch.

On Thursday prosecutors read an indictment including the results of soil surveys taken by Bogor Agricultural University on the five concessions operated by subsidiaries of PT Duta Palma.

“There are no more natural forest trees,” a prosecutor said on Thursday.

The trial continues.

Read more: Indonesian anti-graft enforcers set their sights on a new target: corporations

Banner: Surya Darmadi. Image by Hidayat/Mongabay.

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