By Ronna Nirmala
At least 600 plantation companies have illegal operations in Indonesian forests, including in national parks, wetlands, and U.N. world heritage sites, Greenpeace said in a new report released Thursday.
Palm-oil plantations occupy 3.12 million hectares of Indonesia’s so-called forest estate, encompassing more than 300,000 hectares of land previously mapped out as habitats for orangutan and Sumatran tigers, according to the report by Greenpeace. The international environmental activist group, in producing the report, worked with a group of scientists to analyze data from 2019.
Indonesia’s “national forest estate” is the term the government uses to designate areas where agricultural plantations are prohibited.
“More than 600 companies have a plantation covering more than 10 hectares each in forest areas. Of the total 3.1 million hectares, 1.56 million belong to independent smallholders, and 1.5 million hectares belong to corporations,” Arie Rompas, Greenpeace’s chief campaigner in Indonesia, said during a press conference on Thursday.
According to Greenpeace, illegal palm-oil plantations occupy protected forestland including national parks, wetlands identified for conservation under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. These areas represent some of the highest levels of biodiversity that are critical in trying to tackle climate change, the environmentalist group said.
“This is a clear indication that the Indonesian government is not willing to enforce laws to stop deforestation on public lands or follow through on its climate commitments,” Kiki Taufik, a Greenpeace forest campaigner in Indonesia, said in a statement.
“Instead, it is governing in the interest of corporate elites. Laws and amendments introduced in the last 12 months aim to legalize the plantation sector’s illegal use of Indonesia’s forests and seizing indigenous peoples’ lands,” he said.
The environmental group said it found 100 companies that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a global palm-oil certification scheme, among those operating in forests.
Some of the companies hold up to 10,000 hectares each of illegal plantations, the group said.
Greenpeace said that members of Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), a national certification scheme, occupy 252,000 hectares of plantations in the forests – an area almost four times the size of Jakarta.
“The implications of Indonesia prioritizing oil palm plantation expansion over forest landscapes remain disastrous for Indigenous and traditional communities, and for addressing the global climate crisis,” Greenpeace said.
Indonesia has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent through its own efforts and by 41 percent with international support, by 2030.
Indonesia’s deputy foreign minister, Mahendra Siregar, said Indonesia was on track to fulfill its commitment of reducing carbon emissions.
The rate of deforestation during 2019-2020 fell to its lowest level in 20 years, the state-run Antara news agency quoted Mahendra as saying during an event in Dubai on Wednesday.
“Forest fires are also at their lowest level, down 82 percent from the previous year,” Mahendra said. “In fact, in several other parts of the world, both in the United States, Europe, Australia, there have been extraordinary fires which have caused very high greenhouse gas emissions.”
According to Greenpeace, the clear-burning of forest land to make way for palm-oil plantations has generated nearly 104 million metric tons of carbon emissions during the past 19 years. That equals 33 times the annual emissions from powering all the homes in the Indonesian capital.
On Thursday, officials at the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment on the findings in the Greenpeace report.
The government has not renewed a three-year-old moratorium on permits for new plantations after it expired last month.
Environmentalists and experts have urged the government to extend the moratorium, warning the new rules under the Jobs Creation Law may undermine efforts to limit deforestation.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had said that the new legislation provided for stricter requirements for minimum forest cover.
For instance, the new regulations restrict a company or a corporate group to manage 100,000 hectares of the plantation across Indonesia. The previous law allowed them up to 100,000 hectares within a province.
At the same time, the new law removes a stipulation for the government to maintain forest cover of at least 30 percent of a land area or an island.
The moratorium on new palm oil plantations – as well as the expansion of existing ones – was instituted in 2018 to improve the sustainability of plantations, protect the environment and support the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the government had said then.
The moratorium, among other things, aimed to end the practice of clearing land by burning vegetation to set up lucrative palm oil as well as paper and pulp plantations. Experts had told BenarNews that the economic incentive to use fires was “huge.”
Fires emitted toxic greenhouse gases and even spread to protected forestlands. The resulting heavy haze often crosses national boundaries and engulfs other Southeast Asian countries.
Mansuetus Darto, the chairman of the Palm Oil Plantation Workers Union (SPKS), said he suspected that many large companies disguised their plantations as belonging to smallholders.
“The government must review them. It needs to conduct mapping on the ground,” Darto told an online discussion on Thursday.
In September, the forestry ministry said 3.37 million hectares of palm-oil plantations occupy forest areas, but permits had been applied for around 700,000 hectares of them. The companies have two more years to receive permits for the rest.
Meanwhile, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Thursday launched a biodiesel plant in South Kalimantan province belonging to PT Jhonlin Agro Raya, an influential business group whose interests include palm oil.
Jokowi said Indonesia was committed to switching to renewable energy, including biodiesel.
“In 2021, our goal is to produce and distribute 9.2 million kiloliters (of biofuel), and I request that next year production be increased,” Jokowi said.