Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – An area of natural forest a tenth the size of Seoul has been cleared by a subsidiary of South Korean paper giant Moorim in Indonesia's Papua region, a new report shows.
The land in question, in the district of Merauke, is part of a concession licensed to PT Plasma Nutfah Marind Papua (PNMP), a Moorim Paper subsidiary that grows pulpwood for making paper. Between 2015 and 2021, PNMP cleared more than 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of forest for its plantation, according to the report by NGOs including the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), Mighty Earth, Pusaka, and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM).
Prior to the start of the clearing, PNMP's concession was rich in forests. According to Global Forest Watch data, the concession held 54,800 hectares (135,400 acres) of natural forest, including some primary forest, and a further 9,610 hectares (23,700 acres) of other habitats, including savanna and seasonal alluvial wetland.
Together, these forests, swamps and savannas comprise a key biodiversity hotspot, home to 40 species of mammals, 30 reptiles and 130 fishes on the IUCN Red List. Among them are tree kangaroos (Dendrolagus spp.), white cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus), pig-nosed turtles (Carettochelys insculpta) and southern cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius), according to the report.
Moorim, whose paper products sold around the world have Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, said in a written response to the findings of the report that there were no primary forests or peatlands in PNMP's concession.
Instead, it said PNMP's concession consists of mainly secondary forest and shrubs.
PNMP first came to public attention in November 2011, when the Indonesian government granted the company a new concession consisting of both primary dryland forest and secondary forest.
The permit issuance occurred months after then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had imposed a moratorium on clearing primary forests and peatlands in May 2011.
It wasn't until 2015 that PNMP started clearing the forest in its concession, according to the report. Since then, 6,194 hectares (15,306 acres) of land was cleared in the concession between 2015 and the end of 2021, according to data from forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas.
While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down business activity across entire industries in Indonesia, deforestation in PNMP's concession accelerated during this period, peaking in the mid-2020, when 1,031 hectares (2,548 acres) were cleared between April and August 2020.
By then, a significant part of primary forest in the concession had been destroyed(around 4,000 hectares, or 9,900 acres), according to Global Forest Watch's GLAD alerts. The scale of the clearing, combined with the richness of the biodiversity there, makes PNMP "one of the biggest threats to the rainforest in the region," the NGOs wrote in the report.
Now, the company appears to be targeting the remaining block of primary forests, the report adds. And if the pattern of clearing continues, thousands of hectares of forests might be lost over the next few years.
"The remaining at-risk forest along the Eastern/Southeastern boundaries of the concession is of greatest concern," the report says.
These forests are being cleared to grow pulpwood trees, typically acacia or eucalyptus, to make paper. For Moorim, many of these paper products are marketed to consumers around the world as being sustainable and ethically sourced, the NGOs said.
"Paper is sold globally as an eco-friendly plastic substitute, yet it is still coming from deforestation and abuse of Indigenous peoples' rights," said Sergio Baffoni from the Environmental Paper Network. "We cannot sacrifice the last paradises of the planet for products that end up in the trash bin within a few hours after their first use."
Indigenous rights sidelined
The report also alleges that PNMP failed to obtain the free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC, of the Indigenous and local communities living around its the concession before starting to clear the forest.
The report identifies the land that the concession sits on as being traditionally inhabited and owned by the Malind Indigenous people who live in the Buepe village. In 2013, while finalizing its paperwork for obtaining the concession, PNMP held meetings with local residents, the report says. But the company didn't seek consensus for operations over the 60- year span of the concession.
"Instead, it negotiated with one single village, called Sanggase, over 5 hectares [12 acres] of land for a nursery and subsequently further 12 hectares [30 acres] for a demonstration garden – and even then, did not involve the whole community, but only select individuals," the NGOs wrote in the report.
The Buepe villagers said the company used this agreement with Sanggase to justify its operations in other villages with traditional claims to the land.
The company's actions prompted protests by the villagers. In 2018, PNMP drafted a memorandum of understanding with the eight clans of Buepe, in which the company promised to compensate the villagers for their timber, build infrastructure, buy food from the villagers, and hire them as workers.
These promises remain largely unfulfilled, however, according to villagers interviewed for the report.
The report adds that the company did hand out some money, but it was piecemeal compensation given sporadically, with no comprehensive plan to address its previous failures. As a result, the villagers remain confused as to the purpose of the money.
"Is it a show of 'good will,' or compensation for the harm caused by the company (partial? total?), a rent, a lease or the price for the full extent of the clan's land inside the concession (which awards the land for 60 years)," the report says. "Meanwhile every year the company bulldozes wider areas of traditional land."
Moorim said PNMP had completed the payment of compensation as promised in the memorandum, in accordance with local regulations.
"At paying compensation to local residents, each compensation is explained verbally to the clans' representative and signed in writing," Moorim said. "As it is illegal if [the compensation] is not paid, so PT PNMP pays full compensation under the relevant laws without omission."
'Most of it is dead now'
Regardless of any monetary compensation promised or paid, the clearing of traditional forests has harmed the Buepe villagers, who live principally by foraging, hunting and fishing, according to the report.
They often travel to their customary forests and stay there for weeks or months to collect sago, tubers, wild vegetables, fish and meat, it says.
"For the traditional Malind people, the forest is an irreplaceable source of life," it says. "When the company cuts down the forests, the villagers are deprived of their main source of food, and must walk hours or even days before reaching a forest still standing in which to hunt, fish and forage."
Ani Kaize, an Indigenous woman in Buepe, said the villagers had to tend to their sago gardens from far away ever since they lost their ancestral forests.
"The company has cleared the forest, now it's hard to get wood, bark, to tend to the sago – most of it is dead now, and the sago groves are getting farther away," she said in an interview for the report.
Losing their ancestral forests also means the Buepe villagers have lost many sacred sites. The NGOs identified seven such sites destroyed in the clearing.
"Local people cannot recognize their places anymore, as their 'coordinates' are based on the forest: a tall tree, a turn of the river, a sago bush," the report says. "Once forests are cut down, traditional geography disappears."
Moorim has denied the allegation that its subsidiary had destroyed sacred sites, saying PNMP had listened to the Indigenous peoples' opinion through meetings and agreed that the sacred sites are off-limits for its plantation activities.
The NGOs have called on PNMP to immediately halt land clearing until the company has identified which parts of its concession holds high conservation value (HCV) and high carbon stock (HCS) forest. They also demanded that PNMP map out any social conflicts and fulfill the FPIC process, including remedying past harm caused by its failure to carry out the latter in full.
The government must also sanction the company, said Franky Samperante, executive director of Indonesian NGO Pusaka, one of the groups behind the report.
"Indigenous peoples are already facing difficulties in meeting their needs for quality food and water, livelihood, harmony, none of which can be replaced with unjust compensation," he said. "The government must provide sanctions for alleged violations by the company."
The NGOs also called on the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies Moorim's products, to take action against the company and the alleged violations.
"This report shows how a company like Moorim has continued to trash the last rainforests in Indonesia whilst hiding behind the FSC green forestry label," said Annisa Rahmawati, an environmental advocate at U.S.-based campaign organization Mighty Earth. "The FSC must take swift action against any such company that violates its standards, otherwise the FSC label is just greenwash."
The FSC said it's actively assessing the evidence provided by various sources for substantiated information to determine whether there are indications that Moorim and PNMP have violated its Policy for Association.
Under this policy, the FSC can investigate non-certified companies – against whom allegations of being involved in any of six unacceptable activities are made – if they are a part of a certified company through "direct and indirect involvement."
"In this case, this clause holds up because Moorim Paper owns a majority share of PT PNMP," the FSC told Mongabay in an email.
However, it added that it hasn't concluded the preliminary assessment process.
"And hence no decision has been taken on whether we will pursue a Policy for Association violation case against Moorim Paper and PT PNMP at this point," the FSC said.
In its letter to the NGOs, Moorim said it has "temporarily paused the plantation work from the end of 2021." This moratorium will remain in effect for the next few months to give civil society groups more time to investigate, according to Moorim.
The NGOs called the moratorium "a good step," but noted that Moorim hadn't publicly announced the moratorium or made a public commitment to remediate harm as well. The NGOs said it's important for the company to take swift action immediately, given the grave threats posed by PNMP's activities.
"Time is running out to save our climate and the last frontier forests of the earth as well as the people whose lives depend on it," the NGOs said. "It is time for Moorim to stop hiding under eco-friendly claims."