Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – A palm oil company whose permit was revoked at the start of the year and which was ordered to halt operations is allegedly continuing to clear forests in Indonesia's Papua province.
PT Permata Nusa Mandiri (PNM), one of more than 100 companies targeted in a mass cancellation of plantation permits by Indonesia's environment ministry, carved a road and several plantation blocks out of its land concession in Jayapura district in the weeks after the revocation.
The revocation was announced on Jan. 6; on Feb. 3, PNM sent a letter to the Jayapura district government, notifying it of the company's land clearing. In the letter, PNM said it had restarted operations in the wake of the mass revocations as the health risk brought by the COVID-19 pandemic had started to subside.
The district government sent a response to PNM on Feb. 23, in which the head of the district investment board, Delila Giay, ordered PNM to halt its activities on the ground because of the environment ministry's decree.
However, forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas detected clearing within PNM's concession well after Feb. 23.
"Looking at these two Sentinel 2 [satellite] images taken on 20 February and 12 March, it looks like the company kept clearing after the 23rd," David Gaveau, founder of technology consultancy TheTreeMap, which developed Nusantara Atlas, told Mongabay.
According to data from Nusantara Atlas, 60.5 hectares (150 acres) were cleared in PNM's concession from Feb. 20 to March 11, bringing the total for 2022 so far to 116.9 hectares (289 acres).
Another satellite imagery analysis, by Amsterdam-based sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment, shows 130 hectares (321 acres) of clearing from the start of the year until March 9. That indicates a surge of clearing in the second half of February, given that from the start of the year until Feb. 14, it found about 50 hectares (125 acres) had been cleared.
A PR official for PNM, Ridwan Syarif Abbas, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Namblong Indigenous community, whose ancestral lands overlap with the company's concession, also reported land clearing after the local government's order for a halt to activities.
"Some locals are already aware of the letter [from the district government]," Rosita Tecuari, who heads the Namblong Indigenous women's group, said during a recent online press conference. "But the company's operation hasn't stopped. Until now, it still goes on."
In its letter to the Jayapura district government, PNM said the owners of ancestral rights in the area had asked the firm to started cultivating the concession in order to create jobs for Indigenous peoples.
Rosita denied this, however, saying the community had never accepted PNM's presence in their area, and wanted the company out of their ancestral lands.
"We truly disagree with the presence of the company here," she said. "Why? Because there's going to be a lot of impact. We will lose [our forests]. Wildlife like the cassowary birds will go far away from us."
Piter Roki Aloisius from the Samdhana Institute, an NGO that works with Indigenous peoples in Papua, said the concession area has high biodiversity, especially birds.
"In our study location, we found 10 kinds of birds-of-paradise," he said during the press conference.
Even now, the Indigenous community is already feeling the impact of the land clearing, Rosita said.
"Some of the forests have already been cleared [and] we've lost our livelihoods," she said. "Sago trees have already been bulldozed by heavy equipment. If the forests are completely gone, where should we live? Most of us are farmers and gatherers. That's how we live."
Rosita said Indigenous women like her are especially vulnerable.
"Maybe tomorrow we'll end up selling [goods] on the sidewalk or becoming scavengers to feed our family and children because our livelihoods have changed," she said.
By continuing to clear forest in the concession area, PNM has disobeyed the government's order, Rosita said. To ensure it PNM stops its activities, she said, the government should revoke the company's other permits on top of the forest release permit that was revoked by the environment ministry.
Among the permits that the community is demanding be scrapped are a location permit and an environmental permit issued by the Jayapura district head in 2011 and 2014, respectively as well as a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, issued by the land ministry.
"There's no way for us to eat palm oil and for us to work at plantations because we're not used to working under companies," the Namblong Indigenous community said in a statement. "We don't want to be ordered around by other people. So we're asking for the HGU of PNM to be revoked, and the HGU should no longer be valid since the issuance of the environment minister's decree in January 2022."
The forest release permit revoked on Jan. 6 was originally issued by the environment ministry to rezone a forest area into a non-forest area eligible for plantations. The forest release permit is a prerequisite for the company to obtain an HGU – the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting.
The government has cited failure to cultivate concessions within the allocated time period as one of the reasons for the mass permit revocation. And even before the permit revocation, PNM had been cited as an example of Jakarta's patchy enforcement of the palm oil licensing freeze: the company obtained its HGU in November 2018, two months after President Joko Widodo had signed into force a moratorium on the issuance of new oil palm plantation permits.