Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – A court in Indonesia has ordered the government to publish detailed maps of oil palm plantations in the country's easternmost Papua region, an area increasingly targeted by the plantation and logging companies that have depleted much of the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
But indigenous and land rights activists say they're skeptical about forcing greater transparency from the government, given its record of flouting similar court orders in the past.
The latest ruling, handed down by a state administrative court, says that plantation maps and the identities of holders of plantation permits, known locally as HGU, are public information and therefore must be made accessible to the public. The Feb. 19 ruling caps a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace Indonesia to obtain the HGU data from the agrarian ministry for the provinces of West Papua and Papua, known collectively as the Papua region. The ruling applies only to plantation data for those two provinces.
The agrarian ministry now has no excuse to deliver the data, said Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Asep Komarudin. However, Indonesia's Byzantine court bureaucracy requires that a physical copy of the verdict be received and acknowledged by all involved parties before a ruling can be acted on. In this case, the ministry told Mongabay that it hadn't received the ruling yet from the court.
Urgent need for transparency
Activists have long emphasized the need for greater transparency about concession boundaries and permit holder identities in Papua, home to several indigenous communities and Indonesia's last great expanse of tropical rainforest.
In Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, the lack of publicly accessible HGU maps has oil palm companies to routinely clear land outside their licensed areas. This has led to the destruction of forests and community lands, with little oversight from local officials and few resources for watchdog groups to flag illegal practices.
Publishing the HGU documents, especially plantation maps, will go a long way to addressing this problem in Papua, Asep said.
"With the HGU maps being opened to the public," he said, "it will show clearly the legal boundaries of companies" as compared to their de facto land use.
Bernadus Ronald Jeffry Tethool, the head of the local office of WWF Indonesia in Merauke district, Papua province, agreed that greater transparency would allow watchdogs to better monitor an industry rife with illegality.
Ronald also serves on a local government committee that reviews environmental impact assessments submitted by companies applying for plantation permits. But even in that role, he said, he has limited access to the relevant documents; the all-important maps, for instance, aren't made available to the committee.
For regular residents, access to that information is virtually non-existent, he said.
"Local people don't have money to go to the land agencies [to ask for the HGU documents]," Ronald told Mongabay. "The ones that have money are companies."
As a result, local and indigenous communities are left in the dark whenever companies start operating in their area, because they don't know how far the companies' boundaries extend.
Indigenous groups left in the dark
While plantation information is difficult to come by throughout Indonesia, the information blackout is particularly pronounced in Papua, where the government maintains a high security presence to quell a decades-long insurgency. The region's communications infrastructure is patchy, and the government in Jakarta has said it will readily cut off internet in the event of "abnormal situations" – a catchall that ostensibly refers to insurgent violence, but has also included popular protests against racism and brutality by the security forces.
Similarly, the permit issuance process in the region is also often shrouded in secrecy. Companies and the government routinely omit to properly inform local and indigenous communities about plans to develop their customary and ancestral lands into plantations.
"The government drafts spatial planning in each district without consulting the indigenous people," said Tigor Hutapea, a researcher with the indigenous rights group Pusaka.
He cited the case of the Auyu indigenous group in Boven Digoel district: "The Auyu indigenous tribe doesn't know that its area has been earmarked to become oil palm plantations. The government isn't being open to the people, they haven't asked for approval from the people."
This lack of transparency has contributed to a proliferation of oil palm concessions in Papua. The total allocated area at the end of 2019 was 13,899 square kilometers (5,366 square miles), according to Pusaka. Last year, 2,285 km2 (882 mi2) of forest was cleared in Papua for plantations.
Many of the companies operating in Papua also hold concessions that are larger than is legally allowed. Under zoning laws, a company can hold a maximum of 400 km2 (154 mi2) of plantations in either of the Papuan provinces. But often this isn't enforced: Gama Plantation, a Jakarta-based company, controls a combined 457 km2 (176 mi2) of oil palm concessions; the Korindo Group, an Indonesian-South Korean joing venture, has 1,486 km2 (573 mi2) of plantations in Boven Digoel and Merauke districts alone, according to Tigor.
The spread of plantations has meant the loss of pristine rainforest, some of which has long been regarded as sacred by indigenous inhabitants. One of the more recently deforested areas was the Yawontop forest in Merauke, the ancestral home of the Malind and Wambon Tekamerop indigenous tribes. The forest was bulldozed by operators for the palm oil company PT Bio Inti Agrindo (BIA) last December.
Leonardus Mahuze, a former member of the Merauke district council, said the tribes had lost much more than their forest, recognized by ecologists as an area of high conservation value.
"Once the forests are rehabilitated, can they still be called their ancestral lands? The [value of the] ancestral forests can't be converted into money," Leonardus told Mongabay. "If that's the case, whenever there are ancestral lands being cleared, then companies can just pay [compensation]. These ancestral lands are invaluable. The villagers themselves are afraid to enter these ancestral lands."Women from the Kombai tribe prepare sago grub for guests during the sago grub feast in Boven Digoel, Papua. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.
The recent court ruling stems from a request filed in January 2018 by Greenpeace Indonesia for Papua HGU data and plantation maps from the agrarian ministry.
The ministry rejected the request, saying the information wasn't complete and that it needed to draw up guidelines to regulate how such information should be released. Greenpeace Indonesia then submitted a complaint with the Central Information Commission (KIP), the government clearinghouse for freedom-of-information requests, in April 2018.
In October 2019, the commission ruled in favor of Greenpeace Indonesia, declaring the HGU documents were of public interest and should be made accessible to the public. But the KIP notably excluded plantation maps from the list of data that should be published, saying they should remain confidential in light of the security situation in Papua.
Greenpeace Indonesia's Asep said withholding the maps would have the opposite effect, fueling conflicts by concealing illegal land grabs. The organization challenged the KIP's decision in court, leading to the ruling handed down earlier this month, in which the judges concluded that excluding plantation maps from published HGU data "is not right."
Agung Ady Setyawan, a campaigner with the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia, said Greenpeace Indonesia's victory was the latest in a series of similar rulings ordering the release of HGU data and maps from other regions of Indonesia.
"This could be a heavy blow for the agrarian ministry because there are already verdicts for Kalimantan and Papua," he told Mongabay.
But he said he was skeptical the ministry would comply immediately – if at all – given the scale of projects being pursued in Papua and the number of permits already issued.
"In the case of Kalimantan, the development has already happened, but in the case of Papua, there are many [projects] that have not yet been developed," Agung said. "If the ministry opens up the HGU maps [in Papua] now, that could hamper [those projects]. So the ministry will surely file an appeal at the Supreme Court."
History of stonewalling
The agrarian ministry, under the leadership of Sofyan Djalil, has consistently fought back against efforts to bring transparency to the plantation industry. In an almost identical case as that of Greenpeace Indonesia, Forest Watch Indonesia sought in 2016 to obtain the HGU data and maps for Kalimantan. The ministry refused, and FWI went to the KIP, which ruled in the watchdog's favor. The ministry challenged the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which also sided with FWI in a 2017 ruling.
To date, however, the ministry has refused to release the requested documents. Last year, the government issued a letter to the palm oil lobby, advising member companies not to share their plantation data with other parties, including external consultants, NGOs, and multilateral and foreign agencies.
In refusing to comply with the nation's highest court, the agrarian ministry initially cited the need for guidelines on releasing the HGU information, including putting it behind a paywall. More recently, it has dropped that excuse, saying the data can't be published because it contains private and proprietary company information.
Agung said FWI had sought a meeting with Sofyan since 2017. But it was only in late January this year that the minister agreed to meet with the organization and other NGOs to discuss issues related to the palm oil industry.
In that meeting, Sofyan said it was unacceptable for NGOs to request HGU data for entire regions, according to Agung. He said disclosures of this scale could harm the palm oil industry and benefit its opponents, which he claimed include the European Union (EU).
The EU is currently the No. 2 export market for Indonesian palm oil, but the bloc plans to phase out palm biofuel as a renewable energy source by 2030, over concerns that its production contributes to deforestation.
Sofyan said that with 20 million Indonesians dependent on the palm oil industry for their livelihood, it was important to protect the industry and fight any attempt to bring the HGU maps into the public view. He added he had no problem with NGOs requesting maps for a specific concession to confirm suspicions of land grabbing, for instance.
Agung said he told the minister that NGOs had already submitted such requests for concessions that overlap with local communities, and been rejected repeatedly. He also said the minister's stance was a marked change from Sofyan's previous statements that the HGU maps would eventually be made available to the public once guidelines were in place.
At the end of the meeting, the minister simply instructed the NGOs to wait for the outcome of an appeal filed against the Supreme Court ruling in favor of FWI.