Minister says previous Government responsible for massive deforestation in West Papua – NGOs demand action against illegal palm oil businesses

The Indonesian Minister for Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, explained in recent media interviews that the former Government was responsible for the massive deforestation and expansion of palm oil plantations in West Papua. She stated that all concessions had received recommendation letters from local regents and the governors in West Papua. According to Nurbaya, her ministry had significantly reduced the rate of oil palm expansion proposed by the regents and the Papuan governors. Local activists urged the Government to take immediate action against illegal palm oil activities instead of hiding behind the mistakes of past governments.

Nurbaya elaborated that local governments in West Papua had recommended a total concession area of 279.049 hectares for palm oil plantations between 2015 and 2019. Her ministry only approved a total area of 172.430 hectares, reducing the suggested concession area by 38,2%. The deforestation during the presidency of Soesilo "SBY" Bambang Yudhoyono was much higher, she argued. Between 2005 and 2014, the total oil palm expansion proposed by regents and the two governors of Papua and Papua Barat reached nearly 1.2 million hectares, of which Nurbaya’s predecessors approved 974.576 hectares.

Nurbaya’s statement comes only several weeks after Greenpeace International released a report titled "License to Clear: The Dark Side of Permitting in West Papua". The report reveals allegations of systematic violations on plantation and forest release permits in West Papua. Greenpeace reported that most of this land is currently still forested and called on Jakarta and the provincial governments to protect the area designated for palm oil plantations in West Papua from further deforestation.

Activists demand an immediate investigation against 25 of the 38 palm oil companies which received forestry permits in the Papua Province between 2011 and 2019. The allegations cover a great variety of breaches, including running plantations without permits or environmental impact assessments and licence forging. Greenpeace forest campaign coordinator, Asep Komarudin, emphasised that the forestry department must investigate these allegations and take sanctions against companies engaging in illegal activities. Taking immediate action would be more important than blaming previous governments for the massive deforestation in West Papua.

While the forestry ministry is still hesitant to act, the deforestation in West Papua continues. Multiple companies of the Digoel Agri Group have allegedly illegally cleared forests without obtaining the appropriate permits. Environmentalists examining satellite imagery found more than 194 hectares of forest area cleared on the edge of the Digoel River in the Jari District, Boven Digoel District, Papua Province, between January and March 2021. The clearings reportedly occurred in two palm oil plantations owned by the companies PT Bovedigoel Budidaya Sentosa and PT. Perkebunan Bovendigoel Sjahtera, both subsidiaries of the Agri Group. The Indonesian NGO Pusaka was able to verify that the cultivation rights titles of both companies were still pending and had not yet been approved. Accordingly, the companies had conducted the land clearings illegally, without obtaining the title before the logging activities were carried out.

Pusaka advocacy staff, Tigor Hutapea, demanded the government take actions against the violations by revoking permits and enforcing environmental criminal law and other sanctions if a company has violated the law. The sanctions should also concern government officials who issued permits but were negligent in monitoring the companies’ compliance with regulations.

Pusaka also supports indigenous communities in the Konda District of Sorong Selatan Regency, Papua Barat Province, whose livelihoods are threatened by the palm oil company PT Anugerah Sakti Intenusa. The local government had approved palm oil plantation permits even though the indigenous land rights owners had rejected a palm oil plantation on their customary land. They fear that the remaining forest will be too small to sustain the livelihoods of the communities and preserve their indigenous culture. In 2020, the local parliament in Sorong Selatan formed a task force to review the licenses of companies that had reportedly committed violations against indigenous peoples. However, due today the people in Konda are waiting for the parliament to take action.