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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>