Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – A litany of loopholes and violations have undercut the Indonesian government's forest protection policies, allowing oil palm companies to continue obtaining licenses to clear rainforests for plantations, according to a new report.
The report by Greenpeace analyzes the licensing process in the easternmost province of Papua, the last frontier of intact tropical forest in Indonesia.
In recent years, the palm oil industry has been eyeing the region for its expansion, after largely depleting the forests of Sumatra and Borneo for large-scale plantations.
With an increasing number of companies vying for permits to operate in Papua, the government has been issuing what's known as forest release decrees to rezone forest areas, stripping them of protection from being converted for other purposes.
Since 2000, the government has released almost 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of forest areas – six times the size of London – for 37 plantations in Papua. Thirty of those plantations are for oil palm, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The opening up of Papua's forests is the glaring exception to what the Indonesian government touts as an overall decline in deforestation rates nationwide in recent years. To understand the phenomenon, Greenpeace researchers looked at why the policies credited by the government for slowing deforestation haven't been able to stop the issuance of forest release decrees in Papua.
The policies include a permanent ban on issuing new permits to clear primary forests and peatlands, better known as the forest and peat moratorium; and a moratorium on issuing new permits for oil palm plantations, known as the palm oil moratorium.
The researchers found what they call "systemic violations of permitting regulations" as officials continued to circumvent the moratoriums and other regulations to keep issuing permits to the benefit of companies.
In looking at the application of the forest and peat moratorium, the researchers found that plantation companies had been able to get their concessions exempted by simply claiming that the areas in question did not contain any peat or primary forest.
There's strong evidence that, in many cases, these claims were untrue, the report indicates.
Companies were able to get away with this by exploiting a loophole in the moratorium, it added. Under the moratorium, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry publishes a map that shows which areas are protected by the moratorium. This map is revised every six months.
The shape-shifting nature of the exercise allows swaths of forest to be removed from the map, according to the report. It found that some of the primary forest and peat areas removed from the map are located inside oil palm concessions. After they were removed, the ministry issued forest release decrees that rezoned these areas for oil palm cultivation.
The report said this appeared to be "a common practice." Thirty-two concessions have had parts of their areas rezoned through the issuance of forest release decrees since the forest and peat moratorium first came into force in May 2011. Fourteen of them contain areas previously included in the moratorium map as primary forest, which were subsequently removed from the map prior to the forest release decrees being granted.
Seven concessions also contain areas previously marked as peat, which, similarly, were removed from the map before a forest release was granted.
The report said these changes in the moratorium map appeared to be by design, rather than a result of the correction of inaccuracies in the mapping of forest cover or peat. This is because in most cases, the changes were made only within the concessions concerned, exactly matching concession boundaries, while areas just outside the concession boundaries were not modified at all.
In many cases, it was the companies themselves that requested their concessions be removed from the moratorium map.
Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Arie Rompas said it's clear the environment ministry is accommodating companies' interests by removing their concessions from the moratorium map.
"The moratorium should really pay attention to the landscape of primary forests and peat, but these changes were made because of companies' requests," he said at the launch of the Greenpeace report.
From 2013 to 2015, at least 11 plantation companies and one forestry company in Papua made such requests. According to the report, all these requests were followed by the removal of their concessions from the moratorium map, the latest being in April 2018.
Greenpeace obtained the data from tables of correspondence between the companies and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, posted on the ministry's website. After 2015, the ministry stopped publishing the identities of companies that had requested such changes.
This practice was also analyzed by awasMIFEE, a website that monitors plantation development in Papua. According to the website, plantation companies in Papua have been some of the most active in appealing the moratorium map, after many were refused permission to use state forests in 2013.
The website pointed to companies like PT Tunas Sawaerma, PT Visi Hijau Nusantara, PT Wahana Agri Karya and PT Duta Visi Global in Papua's Boven Digoel district, all of which requested in November 2013 to have their concessions removed from the moratorium map, claiming that the land was all secondary forest.
Their concessions were duly removed through a revision of the moratorium map that same month – despite the ministry's own land cover data, based on a scientific analysis of multiple satellite images over time, showing the requested areas consisted of a mixture of primary and secondary forest.
"The land cover maps produced every year by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry continue to show primary forest in cases where the ministry itself has removed the same land from the moratorium map," the Greenpeace report said.
Following the removal, Zulkifli Hasan, the forestry minister at the time, issued a forest release decree to Duta Visi Global on Sept. 26, 2014. The three other companies received their decrees on Sept. 29, two days before Zulkifli's term in office ended on Oct. 1, 2014, according to the report.
In total, Zulkifli issued forest release decrees for nine concessions in Papua in the seven weeks before he left office.
Three of the companies (Visi Hijau Nusantara was the exception) also managed to get peatland areas inside their concessions removed from the moratorium map after the issuance of the forest release decrees, according to the Greenpeace report.
"Our research has shown that several of these last-minute decisions were implemented without due care and attention and that serious mistakes were made which could impact on ecologically important areas," the report said. "In three concessions in Boven Digoel, areas of peatland which were still included in the forest moratorium were released from the forest estate."
Another company that benefited from the constantly morphing moratorium map was PT Tunas Agung Sejahtera, which has a concession in Papua's Mimika district. The company made a similar request to the ministry under the claim that its concession was made of secondary forest, and had its area subsequently removed from the moratorium map.
The Greenpeace report said all concession and aerial photography from its previous investigations showed closed canopy forest that appeared to be primary forest on the concessions of Tunas Agung Sejahtera, Duta Visi Global and Tunas Sawa Erma.
"It appears that the effectiveness of the forest moratorium has been seriously compromised: the protection of forests and peatlands has on a number of occasions been removed at companies' request, with the involvement of officials from two government ministries," the report said. "This raises the question of whether corruption was involved in these cases to produce a result favorable to the companies concerned."
Mongabay reached out to both the environment ministry and Zulkifli for comment. Neither has responded.
Trend of irregularities
The constantly changing moratorium map is a part of a larger trend of irregularities in the licensing process in Papua, with the Greenpeace report finding the government routinely flouting its own regulations to issue forest release decrees.
In a bid to make the forest release process more stringent, the forestry ministry under Zulkifli issued a regulation in 2010 that was revised twice in 2011 and again in 2014. Under these regulations, which served as guidelines for issuing forest releases until 2016, companies had to first obtain a plantation business permit (IUP), which itself was based on an environmental permit, before they could apply for a forest release decree.
In 2014 the ministries of forestry and environment were merged, and in 2016, under the leadership of current minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the regulations underwent another revision. This one scrapped the requirement for an IUP, meaning forest release applicants only needed to have an environmental permit.
Under first Zulkifli and then Siti, the total forest area that could be released to any company or corporate group was also restricted.
Zulkifli capped at 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) the amount of land that could be released to any one group in the Papua region, which comprises the two provinces of Papua and West Papua. He also instated a limit of 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) that could be released to a group at one time. Companies would need to obtain right-to-cultivate permits (HGU) before being allowed to apply for another forest release.
Under Siti, the forest release limit changed to 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) per province, or 120,000 hectares (297,000 acres) across the Papua region. The maximum area to be released at one time dropped to 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres).
The conditions for issuing a new release are also more specific: 50% of the previous forest release area must have been developed; the company must have obtained an HGU; and 20% of the previous release area must have been developed as a partnership scheme with local communities.
Yet these requirements were often ignored under both ministers, Greenpeace found.
"Of the 32 companies that received forest release decrees in 2011-2019, there were indications that 25 decrees were issued in violation of the regulations, such as not having IUP before getting the forest release decrees," Greenpeace's Arie said.
According to the report, Zulkifli signed more forest release decrees for companies that did not possess valid IUPs (14 releases), in breach of the regulations, than for companies that did hold such permits (nine releases). The forestry ministry under Zulkifli also allegedly violated the 200,000-hectare group concession limit when it released 270,352 hectares (668,054 acres) of land in 2011 to seven companies in the Menara Group, which planned to establish a multibillion-dollar mega plantation project called Tanah Merah in Boven Digoel district.
The project was the focus of a 2018 investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project, which revealed a litany of problems in the way the rights to the concessions had been obtained and traded.
In total, 21 of the 24 forest release decrees Zulkifli signed from 2011-2014 appeared to be in violation of regulations.
"This may have been due to oversight or pro-company bias by ministry staff, but the frequency at which the rules were violated should also raise suspicion of systematic malpractice at the ministry," the report said.
Under Siti, the ministry issued eight forest release decrees in Papua province from 2016 to 2019. Four of them appeared to be in violation of regulations, according to the report. In each instance, there were indications of breaches of the 20,000-hectare one-time limit; the prior HGU requirement; and the 50% development requirement.
For instance, a rubber plantation company, PT Himagro Sukses Selalu (HSS), had its entire concession of 38,212 hectares (94,424 acres) released from forest areas through a single decree in 2017, blowing through the 20,000-hectare limit. According to the report, HSS also still hasn't obtained an HGU or developed its concession.
In 2018 and 2019, Siti's ministry again appeared to break the one-time release limit in favor of two palm oil more companies, PT Sawit Makmur Abadi (SMA) and PT Prima Sarana Graha (PSG), the report added.
"Minister Siti Nurbaya always says that the permits in Papua were issued during Zulkifli Hasan's tenure, but she also kept issuing permits" that appear to be in violation of regulations, Arie said. "What's more damning is that these permits [are for land that] still has good forest cover."
Palm oil moratorium
In addition to the forest and peat moratorium, Greenpeace looked at the moratorium on new palm oil licenses. This expressly forbids the environment ministry from issuing forest release decrees for oil palm plantations, and orders the government to carry out a sweeping review for irregularities in already-licensed concessions.
The moratorium, however, has a major loophole: the ministry may still issue forest release decrees if no boundary survey has taken place. This effectively allows the ministry to continue processing old applications for forest release, Greenpeace said.
Since the moratorium came into force in September 2018, Siti's office has released forest estate land to 22 palm oil companies across Indonesia as of August 2020, according to the report.
One of them is PSG, which submitted an application for forest release in May 2014 and obtained an in-principle forest release approval by Zulkifli five days before he left office that year. The company then carried out a boundary survey in 2016.
In its forest release decree issued to PSG in 2019, Siti's office said this justified treating the case as an exception to the moratorium.
Greenpeace, however, said PSG's application deserved extra scrutiny.
"Given that the moratorium mandates a review of companies that already hold permits based on input from different ministries and local government, it makes little sense to issue new forest release decrees to companies that have received in-principle approvals and/or boundary surveys, unless and until their permit processes are also reviewed for irregularities," it said in the report.
It's not clear if such a review was undertaken in PSG's case or those of other companies, Greenpeace said. It noted there was little sign the government was implementing the mandated permit review process, more than two years since the moratorium came into force.
Greenpeace said it had twice submitted a freedom of information request to the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs, which is tasked to lead the palm oil moratorium initiative, to view the twice-yearly moratorium progress updates that it was instructed to produce. But the NGO says it has not received any response to the requests.
Commenting on Greenpeace's findings, the ministry said the forest release decrees were granted because the companies had obtained their IUPs before the palm oil moratorium was signed in 2018. It also said no deforestation had taken place in the areas that had been released.
Indigenous land stewardship
Nicodemus Wamafma, Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner for Papua, said the report's findings show how the government's flagship forest protection policies have failed Papua.
"These show us that the government only claimed success of forest management on paper, but in practice, the government has failed to protect Papua's natural forests that have always been campaigned as the last frontier of natural forests and the hope of this country and the planet Earth," he said.
He said the government should conduct a review of all licenses in Papua province, like it has done in West Papua province. The West Papua license audit, conducted by the provincial government and the national anti-corruption agency, the KPK, found a litany of administrative and legal violations, such as the absence of HGU licenses before planting began, and the issuance of forest release decrees long after the deadline.
Pending such an audit in Papua province, all companies that have received forest release decrees should halt their operations, Nicodemus said.
"Second, revoke or reduce the size of plantation permits that still have natural forest cover," he said. "If the government say they want zero deforestation, then revoke or reduce the size of the permits."
He also called for law enforcement action against companies and officials proven to have violated forest release and permit issuance regulations.
Lastly, Nicodemus said the government should give Indigenous peoples and the owners of ancestral lands in Papua the lead role in the management of land and forest.
"Papua is not an empty land. The government shouldn't see Papua only for its land, forest and natural resources," he said. "On the island with 41 million hectares [of land], there are more than 250 tribes who live there."
In 2013 Indonesia's Constitutional Court ruled that Indigenous forest would no longer be considered the property of the state, and the government followed up with pledges to recognize the land rights of Indigenous peoples. To date, however, no legal recognition of "customary forests," known as hutan adat in Indonesian, has been granted in the Papua region.
The government has, however, granted access to Indigenous peoples in Papua to manage their lands through other social forestry schemes, such as village forests, community forests, and community plantation forests. But these schemes only give communities temporary access to their lands, which are still owned by the state; if customary forest titles were granted, ownership of the forests would go to the communities.
"[Papuans] have to have their rights recognized and given access [to their lands]," Nicodemus said, "so that Indigenous peoples can feel like they're respected on their own lands."