JAKARTA — Indigenous people in Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province are protesting against a company that’s preparing to raze their ancestral forest for a plantation megaproject plagued by allegations of irregularities and wrongdoing.
Members of the Auyu tribe are demanding the government freeze the operations of PT Indo Asiana Lestari (IAL), whose 39,190-hectare (96,840-acre) concession forms one chunk of the larger Tanah Merah project that has been fought over by competing groups of investors over the past decade.
If developed in full, the Tanah Merah project would result in the clearance of 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) of the third-largest stretch of rainforest on the planet, to be replaced with several contiguous oil palm estates run by various companies — some of which are owned by unknown investors hiding behind anonymously held firms in the Middle East.
Palm oil, used in everything from snack foods and cosmetics to biofuels, is one of Indonesia’s leading export commodities. But its production is associated with a range of problems, from climate change and wildfires to labor rights abuses and land grabbing.
Besides problems with corporate secrecy, the Tanah Merah project has also highlighted the often chaotic licensing processes underpinning the industry. Some of the permits for the project were signed by a politician who was serving out a prison sentence for corruption. Others were allegedly falsified, with a signature of a high-ranking official said to have been forged on key documents.
While the identities of some of the investors with a stake in the project remain unclear, data from Indonesia’s corporate registry shows that IAL is 95%-owned by Mandala Resources, a shell company registered in Kota Kinabalu, a city in Malaysian Borneo.
The rest of the company is owned by PT Rimbunan Hijau Plantations Indonesia, which in turn is owned by a businessman from Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, Muhammad Yakub Abbas, who is also IAL’s director.
While IAL has yet to start clearing land, it recently informed local communities it would begin building supporting infrastructure for the project, with villagers catching sight of heavy equipment on site.
In a phone interview, Egedius Pius Suam, a leader of the Auyu tribe, said the villagers were alarmed by the presence of the heavy equipment, as the tribe hadn’t given its consent for the project.
The company, he added, had yet to demonstrate it had obtained the required permits.
“That’s why we’re demanding the government and the local council to summon the company and check their permits,” Egedius said. “If they can’t find clear permits, then I’m asking for sanctions [to be applied] and for the company to leave.”
According to Frengky Hendrikus Woro, another member of the Auyu tribe, the problems with IAL began when it started approaching local communities in 2017.
The process was led by Fabianus Senfahagi, at the time the head of a local Indigenous people’s association. Fabianus had played a role in shepherding earlier investors in the Tanah Merah project, but by 2017 he appeared to be working on behalf of IAL. Pictures posted to Facebook in mid-2016 appear to show Fabianus and Yakub, the IAL director, in Boven Digoel together.
Frengky said that Fabianus had secured signatures from communities apparently expressing support for the project through a combination of coercion and manipulation. He said the signers did not understand what they were consenting to.
During a meeting attended by Frengky on Aug. 19, 2017, in Ampera village, Fabianus explained to the Auyu people that the company would set aside a part of its concession for the tribe, and that locals would receive monthly payments and enjoy access to clean water and proper housing.
According to Frengky, most community members opposed the company because they didn’t want to surrender their ancestral lands and forests. During the meeting, however, they felt pressured into signing the letter, due in part to the presence of nine police officers.
“It’s a pity that there are people who agree [to sign the letter] because they didn’t understand,” Frengky said. “Many of us who live in the villages still can’t read or write so in my view the company tricked them.”
Fabianus, Yakub and IAL did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Local activists opposing the project have received a “series of threats” Pusaka, an Indonesian NGO supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights, in November.
Egedius himself has reported receiving death threats over his resistance to IAL’s plans. Now, he says, the company’s presence has divided the Auyu, with some people continuing to oppose the company and others supporting it.
Such social malaise is common in Indigenous communities where plantation firms have gained a foothold in Indonesia, research has shown.
“Before the company came, we lived a peaceful life,” Egedius said. “But because of its presence in our ancestral territory, we have become enemies with our own brothers and sisters.”
Though IAL has yet to start knocking down the forest, the community’s recent protests were provoked by the company’s announcement that it was ready to build log ponds, which serve to store logs before they can be processed at a sawmill. Egedius characterized the log ponds as an “entry point” for deforestation to begin.
In September, some 50 Auyu gathered in protest in front of government offices in Boven Digoel district, where the Tanah Merah project is located. Clad in traditional dress, they sang and danced, and held up banners demanding the government respect their rights over their tribal lands.
“[We’re asking the] Boven Digoel district head and the legislative council to stop and check the activity and the permits of PT Indo Asiana Lestari,” the Auyu people said in a letter submitted to the government.
The letter accused IAL of failing to obtain the required permits and get approval from the Auyu tribe for its operations.
IAL has already obtained a location permit, among the first in a series of approvals that plantation companies need in order to operate legally, according to Djukmarian, the head of the Boven Digoel investment agency.
The next step is for the provincial government to approve an environmental impact assessment produced by the company. After that, the district government must sign off on an environmental permit.
Despite the recent passage of a sweeping deregulation law that overhauls the permit process for development projects, making it unnecessary in some cases to carry out the environmental impact assessment, Djukmarian said IAL would still have to do one. That process, he said, was ongoing.
“I’m now waiting for recommendation [for the environmental permit] from the provincial [government],” Djukmarian said by phone.
Responding to the Auyu people’s demand for the local government to review the company’s permits, Djukmarian said the agency had been evaluating the permits of companies operating in Boven Digoel, including IAL, since mid-2017.
A permit review is one of the key components of Jakarta’s freeze on new permits for oil palm plantations. President Joko Widodo signed the policy in 2018 as part of an effort to improve governance and sustainability in the country’s palm oil sector.
A 2019 government audit found that 81% of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations are in breach of a range of regulations, including by not holding the required permits and encroaching into areas designated as protected.
The moratorium policy also requires government agencies to review existing oil palm concessions for any irregularities. A similar initiative in the mining sector, concluded several years ago, resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of mining concessions. No oil palm licenses have been revoked under the current initiative, which expires this year.
Environmentalists say the permit review is especially important to be carried out in Papua as many plantation companies are already eyeing the region as the next frontier for oil palm and logging industries after much of the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo had been cleared to make way for plantations.
According to data from environmental NGO Madani, in 2015, there were only five plantation permits in the region of Papua, which consists of Papua and West Papua provinces. In 2017, there were 114.
Much of the areas earmarked for plantations are still forested. Madani data show there were still 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of rainforests within existing oil palm concessions in the Papua region that have yet to be torn down. Revoking the permits could prevent the forests from being cleared.