Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Three palm oil companies have sued the local government in Indonesia's West Papua province after their plantation licenses were revoked following a recent audit.
This has prompted concerns that other firms whose permits were also revoked will follow suit.
The three companies – PT. Inti Kebun Lestari (IKL), PT Papua Lestari Abadi (PLA), and PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS) – are suing the head of Sorong district, Johny Kamuru. IKL has also named the chief of the Sorong investment agency, Salmon Samori, as a respondent in its lawsuit.
The three companies together controlled 90,031 hectares (222,471 acres) of land in Sorong – an area larger than New York City – before their permits were rescinded.
They say the government's decision to revoke their licenses harmed them, and have asked the state administrative court in Jayapura, the capital of neighboring Papua province, to annul the revocation.
The Sorong district government rescinded the permits on April 27, after years of struggle by Indigenous communities in the region to get their land rights recognized and defend their territories from palm oil companies. In justifying the decision, the government said the companies had failed to fulfill their obligations as laid out in the plantation permits, such as reporting the progress of their operations, updating changes to their shareholding, and keeping their location permits up-to-date.
The three companies also lacked a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting, according to Nur Amalia, one of the lawyers representing the Sorong district government in the case.
The companies had only obtained location permits, environmental permits and plantation permits. That means they hadn't started planting oil palm trees by the time they were supposed to, which is an administrative violation.
The companies also failed to obtain consent from the Indigenous communities living in the areas, Nur said. The law stipulates that companies are required to obtain this permission within two years of getting their location permits.
The violations were uncovered during a province-wide audit of oil palm plantation licenses, which was started in 2018 and found widespread administrative and legal violations, including lack of necessary licenses and land abandonment.
The audit was jointly carried out by various government institutions, including the national anti-corruption agency (known as the KPK), the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and the Ministry of Agriculture; and is a mandate of President Joko Widodo's moratorium on new palm oil permits.
The audit resulted in the revocation of permits covering 330,000 hectares (815,400 acres) of areas – double the size of London – in eight districts in West Papua province. Johny, the Sorong district head, said this process gave him every reason to revoke the permits and that he did so in accordance with existing procedures and regulations.
"After we did more thorough analyses, we saw that we can no longer tolerate [the violations]," he told reporters in a recent online press conference. "Therefore, based on some existing studies, we decided to revoke the permits for the sake of the livelihoods of the people here, of nature, of sustainable development, and of human rights."
Nur said the government had invited the companies to a discussion to explain the violations and give them an opportunity to address the issues. Johny said that during this meeting his government had offered the companies so that they could continue with their existing operation.
However, the companies failed to follow up on the resolutions from meeting, and instead issued a letter of protest, according to Johny.
"We haven't had the chance to respond to the protest letter yet, [but] they [the companies] had contacted their lawyers [to file lawsuits in court]," he said.
The lawsuits have triggered an outcry from officials and environmental and Indigenous rights activists. Mamberob Rumakiek, a West Papua representative at the upper house of the national parliament, called the case "pitiful."
"If the government that exists on customary lands can be sued, then surely Indigenous peoples or commoners [can also be sued]," he said at the online press conference.
Mamberob said the lawsuits could lead to similar litigation across Indigenous lands in the region. "With the Sorong district head being sued, this has to unite us all, the Indigenous peoples of Papua," he said.
During the opening hearing on Aug. 23, university students staged a protest outside the courthouse.
"We're asking the judges who handle this case to uphold the law to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples," Dortheus Klasjok, one of the students, said during the rally.
A coalition of 25 NGOs has also voiced its support for the Sorong district government, saying the decision to revoke the palm oil licenses was the right one to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. An online petition to get the three companies to drop their lawsuits had garnered nearly 33,000 signatures as of Sept. 2.
There are also concerns that the companies may have had cleared forests in their concessions despite not having obtained their HGU permits. This is because one of them, IKL, had already obtained a timber exploitation permit, which allows it to log its concession and sell the timber in preparation for planting oil palms. The government audit identified 14,088 hectares (34,812 acres) of forests in the company's concession.
The West Papua audit had recommended the provincial forestry agency revoke the timber exploitation permit.
And even if the other companies hadn't obtained timber exploitation permits, they could still clear forests, according to Sorong district head Johny.
"We know that these companies, these people are smart, they will play inside the legal vacuum," he said. "There could be land clearing and timber utilization even though there's no [timber exploitation] permits at all."
Piter Ell, a lawyer for the Sorong district government, said there are indications that many companies applying for oil palm licenses are doing so only to cut down trees and sell the wood for quick cash, with no intention of establishing an oil palm plantation. West Papua and Papua provinces hold some of the last remaining stands of commercially valuable hardwood species in Indonesia, including merbau, a prized target for illegal loggers and timber traffickers.
This could prompt the judges hearing the lawsuits to go to the rescinded concessions to see for themselves if there's any logging activity taking place, Piter said.
"There are oil palm licenses but what's being extracted is the timber," he said.
Mamberob, the parliamentary representative, called on President Widodo to declare all lands in West Papua and Papua provinces as customary lands, to prevent companies from trying to undermine Indigenous rights.
"Just declare the lands in Papua as customary lands so that no more concession permits will be issued," he said. "The president should take firm action now [by declaring] forest and land in Papua as owned by Indigenous peoples, not no-man's land."
Frida Klasim, a Moi Indigenous woman living in Sorong, said forests in Papua are integral to the lives of Indigenous peoples. "Forests are the identity of Indigenous peoples," she said. "They're not just forest cover, but also sacred places."