By Hans Nicholas Jong
The Indonesian government has backed down from a decision to scrap its timber legality verification process for wood export, amid criticism from activists and the prospect of being shut out of the lucrative European market.
A new company has begun clearing rainforest in an area of Indonesia's easternmost Papua province earmarked to become the world's largest oil palm plantation, in a vast project that has been mired in allegations of lawbreaking.
A satellite view of Digoel Agri's forest clearance, seen in late November 2019.<p>Since it was first conceived in 2007, the rights to the project have changed hands several times, involving a string of investors who have deployed crude and complex corporate secrecy techniques to hide their identities.</p><p>The licensing process for the project has been plagued by irregularities. A cross-border <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/11/the-secret-deal-to-destroy-paradise/" target="_blank">investigation</a> by The Gecko Project, Mongabay, Malaysiakini and Tempo, published in November 2018, revealed that key permits were signed by an elected official who was simultaneously serving a prison sentence for embezzling state funds.</p><p>A subsequent <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/revealed-government-officials-say-permits-for-mega-plantation-in-papua-were-falsified/" target="_blank">report</a> found that officials believe other essential permits — for both the plantation and a giant sawmill to process the timber — were falsified.</p><p>Two companies, majority-owned by anonymous firms registered in the United Arab Emirates, began operating on the basis of these permits, to the north of the land now held by Digoel Agri. In response to written questions from The Gecko Project and Mongabay they have denied the allegation that the permits were falsified.</p><p>On paper, Digoel Agri's involvement in the project represents a clean break from those allegations. The firm arrived on the scene after the suspect permits held by earlier investors were revoked and reassigned to it.</p>
Enter the Rumangkangs<p>Digoel Agri was set up by members of the Rumangkang family, according to the Indonesian government's corporate registry. The late family patriarch, Ventje Rumangkang, who <a href="https://kumparan.com/kumparannews/pendiri-partai-demokrat-ventje-rumangkang-meninggal-dunia-1stwRMdnjsT" target="_blank">died</a> in February at the age of 74, was a founder of Indonesia's Democratic Party, the vehicle for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's successful presidential run in 2004.</p><p>At their office in Jayapura, Jackson and his brother Jones Rumangkang, 44, said they had decided to invest in the Tanah Merah project after being encouraged to do so by bureaucrats in Boven Digoel, the district in which the project is located. They then formed several companies under the Digoel Agri brand and set about acquiring the permits.</p><p>The brothers said they were helped along by Fabianus Senfahagi, the head of a local indigenous people's association. He had played a role shepherding through the project in its early stages, <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/11/the-secret-deal-to-destroy-paradise/" target="_blank">accompanying</a> surveyors sent by other investors around 2012.</p><p>A paper trail of correspondence among Fabianus and government officials shows he subsequently agitated for the permits to be revoked and reassigned to the Digoel Agri Group.</p>
A road cuts through one of the Digoel Agri land concessions, seen in January. Pusaka
Competing Interests<p>The Rumangkangs insist that the project will benefit the Auyu people. Jones said the ones he met were overjoyed about the prospect of a plantation on their land.</p><p>"They didn't just ask, they cried," he said. "The Auyu tribe is the poorest in Boven Digoel, even though they're so rich [in natural resources]."</p><p>The Rumangkangs have enlisted foreign investors to help them develop the plantation. Their chief partner is a New Zealand property developer named Neville Mahon. In 2018, Mahon became the majority shareholder of the Digoel Agri subsidiaries with land concessions in the project. He could not be reached for comment.</p><p>Mahon associate Thirunavukarasu Selva Nithan, an Australian national, is the sole director of the three companies, corporate records show. Contacted by email, he said he had resigned his position and directed questions to Jackson.</p><p>The involvement of these investors adds to a growing list of actors from across the world with a stake in what could become the world's largest stretch of oil palm. Malaysian logging giant Shin Yang has constructed a sawmill to process timber from the project.</p><p>North of the Digoel Agri concessions, investors whose identities are hidden behind anonymously owned companies in the United Arab Emirates have also begun clearing land, with the Menara Group and the sister of a prominent politician from Indonesia's National Mandate Party as their minor partners. So far, they've bulldozed 8,300 hectares (20,500 acres) of forest, nearly 3% of the project's total area.</p><p>Yet another firm holds the rights to the northernmost block of the project. Corporate records show it is majority owned by two holding companies registered to a letterbox address in Malaysia. The minor shareholder in that venture is the Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau.</p><p>Many Auyu remain steadfastly opposed to the Tanah Merah project, according to Franky Samperante, the director of Pusaka, an Indonesian nonprofit that advocates for indigenous peoples' rights.</p>
Franky Samperante. Sandy Watt / The Gecko Project<p>On a recent trip to the area, he found that members of the Kemon clan, whose land has been targeted by Digoel Agri, did not want the plantation to go ahead on the grounds that it would destroy their food and water supplies.</p><p>He questioned the government's decision to allow the plantation to move ahead, without investigating the allegation that permits held by the earlier investors had been falsified.</p><p>"In light of the irregularities that have arisen, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry must review the decrees rezoning the land," he said. "The government must impose sanctions on the perpetrators."</p>
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After nearly 15 inches of rain fell in one day and caused flash floods and landslides in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, that destroyed 60,000 homes and killed at least 43 people, the Indonesian Air Force sent two planes to drop salt on approaching rain clouds to break them up before they reached the city, according to Reuters.
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In recent years, Bali has been called the trash island in the world after a British diver recorded himself in one of the island's most iconic dive spots fully surrounded in plastics. In December 2017, the Balinese Government even declared a trash emergency.
With 80 percent of plastic pollution in our oceans coming from rivers and streams, Make A Change World is launching 100 trash booms around Bali to prevent plastics going out to sea under its latest project Sungai Watch.
Make A Change
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By Hans Nicholas Jong
The makers of Oreo cookies and KitKat chocolate bars are among the companies getting some of their palm oil from producers linked to the fires that have razed large swaths of land in Indonesia, a new report says.
Land burning in an oil palm concession owned by PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA).
Elviza Diana / Mongabay-Indonesia
Household Brands<p>The report first looks at the plantation companies with the highest number of fires on their concessions between January and September this year, the largest areas of burned land on their concessions between 2015 and 2018, and/or those that have been sanctioned for fires.</p><p>Greenpeace identified 30 such groups, 21 of which are current members of the leading certification body for ethical sourcing of the crop, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO has a strict "no burning" and "no deforestation" policy for its members.</p><p>Greenpeace then looked at whether the palm oil produced by these groups was present in the supply chains of major brands and traders. It found that all 30 of the palm oil producer groups most closely linked with the fires in Indonesia trade in the global market, supplying to leading consumer goods companies.</p><p>Four household names — Mondelēz, Nestlé, Unilever and P&G — are each linked to up to 10,000 fire hotspots, as they buy from palm oil producer groups with the highest numbers of fire hotpots in 2019. Mondelēz and Nestlé, the respective producers of Oreo and KitKat, among other brands, buy from 28 of these groups. Unilever buys from at least 27, and P&G from at least 22, according to Greenpeace.</p><p>These big brands also source from companies with legal problems or that are currently under public investigation for fires. Unilever, for instance, is supplied by eight plantation companies with court actions or sanctions against them, and 20 companies whose operations have been sealed for investigation as a result of the 2019 fires, according to the report.</p><p>Major palm oil traders are also still getting some of their supply from producers linked to the burning.</p><p>Wilmar, the world's largest palm oil trader, for example, is supplied by palm oil groups responsible for more than 1,400 square kilometers (540 square miles) of burned land between 2015 and 2018 and nearly 8,000 fire hotspots in 2019 to date.</p>
Burned area in oil palm concession owned by PT ATGA.
Elviza Diana / Mongabay-Indonesia
Poor Monitoring<p>Greenpeace's Annisa said burning-linked palm oil was being allowed to circulate through the global supply web because of weaknesses in the respective companies' monitoring of their supplies' provenance.</p><p>Some of the consumer goods companies failed to identify palm-fruit processing mills that were on their supplier lists as belonging to producer groups that they had in fact already banned. For instance, both Nestlé and Unilever's supply chain disclosures still show supply chain links to mills owned by Salim Ivomas Pratama, a member of Indonesia's Salim Group.</p><p><a href="https://www.eco-business.com/news/major-brands-break-ties-with-indonesian-palm-oil-giant/" target="_blank">Nestlé</a> and <a href="https://www.unilever.com/Images/unilever-response-to-allegations-against-salim-group_tcm244-523124_1_en.pdf" target="_blank">Unilever</a> previously removed the Salim Group from their respective lists of suppliers in light of longstanding allegations of <a href="https://www.ran.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Salim_Peat_Report_04102018.pdf" target="_blank">environmental</a> and <a href="https://www.ran.org/wp-content/uploads/rainforestactionnetwork/pages/15889/attachments/original/1467043668/The_Human_Cost_of_Conflict_Palm_Oil_RAN.pdf?1467043668" target="_blank">labor violations</a>.</p><p>In a response to Greenpeace, Nestlé said that since April 2018, following a supply chain mapping process, "several mills have been suspended or otherwise removed. This includes ten upstream supply chain companies published on our website, like the Korindo Group and Salim. This underscores our commitment to achieving deforestation-free supply chains."</p><p>Unilever said it had "suspended sourcing from six of the indirect suppliers identified in the Greenpeace tables. These are: Austindo Nusantara Jaya [ANJ]; Best Agri Plantation; Citra Borneo Indah [SSMS]; Jaya Agra Wattie; Salim Group …; Sungai Budi/Tunas Baru Lampung. These six suspended groups are no longer in our Supply Chain and will not appear in the next scheduled update to our mill list."</p><p>However, they failed to attribute Salim Ivomas Pratama mills as belonging to the Salim Group, according to the report.</p><p>Nestlé says "Salim Ivomas Pratama isn't one group with Salim Group. But they're clearly one group," Annisa said. "This is amazing because it means [the brands] aren't aware of what's happening at the level of traders and producers. So most of them don't know. They just believe what they've been told by their suppliers."</p><p>This is also happening with traders such as Cargill, Annisa said.</p><p>Cargill's grievance tracker states that as of May 2018, Indofood, an arm of the Salim Group, is no longer in its supply chain. However, Cargill's most recent supply chain disclosure reveals purchases from "Gunta Samba" mills, which are part of the Salim Group but not classified as such by Cargill.</p><p>Greenpeace identified 332 fire hotspots within the concessions associated with the Salim Group (including subsidiaries IndoAgri, Indofood and IndoGunta) between January and September this year, and 78 square kilometers (30 square miles) of burned area from 2015 to 2018. Plantation company PT Kebun Ganda Prima, which had its concessions sealed off by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry this year, is also identified by Greenpeace as belonging to the Salim Group.</p><p>The Salim Group declined to respond to Greenpeace's fire hotspot and burn scar data on the grounds that "your information and data is neither specific nor detailed," according to the report.</p>
A patrolling team hired by oil palm company PT ATGA to douse fires in the concession.
Elviza Diana / Mongabay Indonesia
Defining Producer Groups<p>Exposure to producer groups with links to environmental and social violations is common among big brands, but difficult to trace, the report says.</p><p>"[A]s a result of serious transparency failings, much of this exposure is not made explicit in their public supply chain disclosures, which require painstaking analysis to reveal the full extent of the companies' links to fires, deforestation, and human exploitation," it says.</p><p>This is in part because there's still disagreement over how producer groups are defined, Annisa said, even as many consumer goods brands and traders state that their sustainability policies are intended to apply to entire producer groups.</p><p>She said the definition should extend beyond formal parent-subsidiary corporate relationships because a large segment of the plantation industry, especially in Southeast Asia, has always been controlled by complex conglomerates owned by individuals and families.</p><p>Therefore, a group definition should take into account not only common ownership but also shared financial, managerial and/or operational control, Annisa said.</p><p>"So the definition of a group isn't firm yet, it's very elastic," she said. "But it's clear that if there's shared managerial and financial control, then it's a group. We also found many companies with the same addresses. Don't we include these companies in one group? So the definition of producer group has to be revised. Otherwise, companies can evade their responsibilities repeatedly."</p>
Smoke rises from an oil palm plantation on a peatland in Sumatra.
Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
‘No Business on a Dead Planet’<p>Annisa said there was an urgent need for drastic transformation in the palm oil industry, especially as the fires in Indonesia were contributing significantly to carbon emissions and hence climate change.</p><p>According to data from the <a href="http://www.globalfiredata.org/index.html" target="_blank">Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED)</a>, this year's fires have released an estimated 465 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent as of Oct. 22 — almost the entire total greenhouse gas emissions of the U.K. in a year.</p><p>"If the forests are gone, we can't do anything," Annisa said. "This is what [the companies] fail to realize. We all know that there's no business on a dead planet."</p>
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By Ayat S. Karokaro and adapted by Basten Gokkon
Two Indonesian journalists who had reported on an illegal oil palm plantation in Sumatra while also allegedly trying to gain control of the crop have been found dead at the plantation.
An oil palm worker harvesting palm fruit at a plantation in North Sumatra. Nanang Sujana for RAN / Oppuk
Golfrid Siregar, left, protests against the proposed Batang Toru hydropower project, which threatens the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan. Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi)
Environmental activists in Indonesia have raised suspicions over the death this week of a human rights defender who was a staunch advocate of communities threatened by palm oil plantations.
Golfrid Siregar, center, and his colleagues show the lawsuit they filed against the North Sumatra government over an alleged forgery in the permitting process for a hydropower project in Batang Toru, Sumatra.
Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).<p><br>"We suspect the victim was beaten up at another location," Roy Lumbangaol, Golfrid's manager at Walhi, told reporters on Oct. 7. "To eliminate the evidence, he was brought to the location where he was eventually found."</p><p>Walhi has called on police to launch a thorough and transparent investigation into Golfrid's death. The group also asked the National Commission on Human Rights to monitor the police investigation.</p><p>Associates last had contact with Golfrid on the afternoon of Oct. 2, when he left home to deliver a package and have a meeting. By the evening, he couldn't be contacted. At 1 a.m. on Oct. 3, a rickshaw driver found his body on the overpass.</p><p>The police have said they will call in the rickshaw driver for further questioning and check footage from CCTV cameras installed near the location where Golfrid was found.</p><p><span></span>Golfrid was best known for his work with legal aid and civil society groups in helping local communities ensnared in land conflicts with palm oil companies.</p><p>His most recent work was on a lawsuit against the North Sumatra government over the <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/02/allegation-of-forged-signature-casts-shadow-over-china-backed-dam-in-sumatra/" target="_blank">alleged forgery of a researcher's signature</a> in an environmental impact assessment for a proposed hydropower project. Activists say the planned dam would threaten the only known habitat of the <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2017/11/the-eighth-great-ape-new-orangutan-species-discovered-in-sumatra/" target="_blank">Tapanuli orangutan</a> (<em>Pongo tapanuliensis</em>), a critically endangered species. According to Walhi, Golfrid had recently lodged a complaint to the National Police against the North Sumatra Police's decision to drop the investigation into the alleged forgery.</p><p>Golfrid's death is the latest in a disturbing pattern of environmental defenders dying under suspicious circumstances in Indonesia. From 2010 to 2018, there were 171 recorded cases of violence against activists in Indonesia, according to Ainul Yaqin from the Indonesian Human Protection Foundation (YPII). Most of the victims were environmental activists.</p><p>Earlier this year, the head of Walhi's West Nusa Tenggara chapter <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/02/arson-attack-leaves-activist-in-indonesia-shaken/" target="_blank">survived an arson attack</a> after assailants barricaded him inside his home and set it on fire.</p><p>"The struggle as human rights defenders will always continue," Walhi said in a <a href="https://walhi.or.id/pembela-hak-azasi-manusia-hrds-sumatera-utara-terindikasi-korban-percobaan-pembunuhan-meninggal-dunia" target="_blank">statement</a>.</p>
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Indonesia's forest fires have made headlines globally over the past few weeks. This year's forest fires have affected millions of people. Schools have closed in some areas due to unsafe levels of air pollution, while many people are suffering from respiratory illnesses. The haze has spread so far as to affect Singapore and Malaysia.
1. 2019's fires are the worst since 2015.<p><a href="https://fires.globalforestwatch.org/report/index.html#aoitype=GLOBAL&reporttype=globalcountryreport&country=Indonesia&dates=fYear-2019!fMonth-1!fDay-1!tYear-2019!tMonth-9!tDay-30" target="_blank">According to data displayed on Global Forest Watch (GFW) Fires</a>, there have been 66,000 fire alerts from January through the end of September. While this is much lower than fire levels in 2015 — which saw more than 110,000 alerts at the end of September — it far exceeds forest fires levels in 2016, 2017 and 2018.<span></span><br></p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTIyMTk5NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTcxNjI5OX0.NkfLvIX3K-RpaU1AgJTA3C9O_NMaFOmyGEHc4XR69eU/img.png?width=980" id="1cb6b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6264ba49cee5d735604d750532617f1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
2. This year’s fires jeopardize Indonesia’s progress in reducing deforestation.<p>Of the countries historically most responsible for the world's deforestation, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/indonesia" rel="noopener noreferrer">Indonesia</a> is the only one that's actually reduced <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/04/world-lost-belgium-sized-area-primary-rainforests-last-year" target="_blank">its deforestation rate in recent years</a>. This year's fires season could derail this promising trend.<br></p><p>According to annual tree cover loss data on Global Forest Watch, Indonesia's deforestation rate declined significantly <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/04/world-lost-belgium-sized-area-primary-rainforests-last-year" target="_blank">in 2017 and 2018, after a record-high in 2016</a>. National policies like the forest moratorium and peatland restoration plan played a big role, but these years also benefited from wetter conditions associated with the La Niña weather pattern. <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/09/18/wildfires-indonesia-have-ravaged-acres-palm-oil-farmers-are-blame/" target="_blank">While farmers set fires every year to clear land</a>, the blazes are less likely to spread or rage out of control during wet years than they are during dry years. With the return of El Niño this year and its warmer, drier conditions, it's unclear if Indonesia will see further declines in deforestation this year. We'll need to wait until Global Forest Watch's 2019 tree cover loss data is available to measure fires' full impact on the country's forests.</p>
3. 42% of fires have occurred in peatlands.<p><a href="https://fires.globalforestwatch.org/report/index.html#aoitype=GLOBAL&reporttype=globalcountryreport&country=Indonesia&dates=fYear-2019!fMonth-1!fDay-1!tYear-2019!tMonth-9!tDay-30" target="_blank">Data on GFW Fires</a> shows that 42% of fire alerts detected in Indonesia this year occurred in peatlands, just like in 2015 where <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/09/after-record-breaking-fires-can-indonesias-new-policies-turn-down-heat" target="_blank">40% of fires were observed</a> on peatland.<br></p><p>Fires on carbon-rich peatlands are notoriously difficult to extinguish. Organic matter inside peat makes fires bigger and generates more haze. Burning peatland is also problematic for the climate — <a href="https://en.pantaugambut.id/peatland-101/the-important-role-of-peatlands/managing-climate-change" target="_blank">draining one hectare</a> of tropical peatland will produce <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/destruction-tropical-peatland-overlooked-source-emissions" target="_blank">an average of 55 metric tons</a> of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of burning more than 6,000 gallons of gas.</p>
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Nearly 200 people have been arrested in Indonesia over their possible connections to the massive wildfires raging in the nation's forest, officials said this week.
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By Taufik Wijaya
The planned construction of a bridge and private port in southern Sumatra threatens to damage one of the last remaining habitats of the island's critically endangered elephants.
Sumatran elephants in the Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Sanctuary in sourthern Sumatra.
Nopri Ismi / Mongabay Indonesia.
One of the young male elephants at the Padang Sugihan Elephant Training Center on Dec. 15, 2018.
Rifky / CIFOR