Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – More than 100 Indigenous people in Indonesia's Papua region are calling on the local government to revoke all the permits of a palm oil company that's continuing to clear land despite being ordered to halt all activities by officials.
The order was issued after the company, PT Permata Nusa Mandiri (PNM), had one of its permits, known as a forest release permit, identified for revocation by the central government in January.
The forest release permit was subsequently revoked on March 29, together with the permits of other plantation companies operating in Papua.
This prompted PNM and two other companies to file lawsuits against the central government at the state administrative court in Jakarta. All three companies are subsidiaries of the Indogunta Group, believed to be linked to the Salim Group, a major palm oil conglomerate that has pledged to stop clearing forest, working under a so-called shadow company arrangement.
As PNM wages a legal battle against the government, it also continues to clear land in its concession.
The land clearing started shortly after Indonesia's environment ministry issued a list of more than 100 companies targeted in a mass cancellation of permits on Jan. 6. PNM is on the list.
Prior to that, PNM's concession in Jayapura district, in Papua province, was dormant, the reason cited by the government for most of the permits revoked. In the weeks after the revocation was announced, the company jump-started activity, carving a road and several plantation blocks out of its land concession.
According to data from Greenpeace Indonesia, the company cleared more than 70 hectares (173 acres) of land in the first few months of the year.
That prompted the Jayapura district government to order PNM to halt its activities on the ground through a letter on Feb. 23, according to Delila Giay, the head of the district investment board.
However, that didn't last long. Delila said she had received reports from local people saying the company had recently resumed its activities, and who were questioning whether the government had authorized it. Delila said the local investment board had done no such thing.
The local communities' report was corroborated by a field observation by Greenpeace Indonesia on July 5. The NGO's investigators found six excavators being used to clear land, with workers operating the heavy machinery.
As of July 19, the company had cleared more than 100 hectares (247 acres) of land, according to Greenpeace Indonesia's analysis.
The new clearing is located in the same site where the company cleared land at the beginning of the year, Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Sekar Banjaran Aji said. This time, the excavators cleared vegetation that had regrown after the company temporarily ceased operation due to the government order in February. They had also cleared forests on the fringe of the opening, which explains the increase in forest loss, according to Sekar.
A PR official for PNM, Ridwan Syarif Abbas, did not respond to a request for comment.
Commenting on the fresh clearing, Jayapura district head Mathius Awoitauw said PNM should obey the government's order to halt its activities immediately.
"[The company shouldn't] operate for now because their permit had been revoked," he told Mongabay on the sidelines of an event in Jakarta on July 14. "If they do it again, [the punishment] will be heavier. They have to obey the law."
PNM's activities have sparked concerns among the Namblong Indigenous community, whose ancestral lands overlap with the concession. Rosita Tecuari, who heads the Namblong Indigenous women's association, said the community had never accepted PNM's presence in their area, and wanted the company out of their ancestral lands.
"The ongoing company operation is destroying our forests," she said. "If the company disregards the government's order, then how much attention is being given to us, the Indigenous peoples? It's like we're living in hell ever since the company came here."
To ensure PNM stops its activities, more than 100 members of the Namblong Indigenous community have demanded Mathius scrap the firm's location permit and environmental permit, which were issued in 2011 and 2014, respectively, by the local government.
"We're asking the Jayapura district head to revoke these permits by July 31 at the latest," Mathius Sawa, the head of the Namblong Indigenous council, said on July 21.
To address the Indigenous community's concerns, the district government has established a team to investigate the matter, including whether the local people were ever given the opportunity to give their free, prior and informed consent to the project, and to review existing licenses, including location permits and environmental permits.
"We give the team two to three months [to gather data] because this has to be done as soon as possible," Mathius said, "so that we can submit the data to the provincial government and the [environment] ministry, so that the analysis can be more comprehensive."
The revocation of PNM's forest release permit has led to a question over the legality of the company's operations.
Forest release decrees, issued by the environment ministry, rezone forest areas (where plantations are prohibited) into "other use areas," or APL, where forests can be cleared for oil palm plantations. Even after it has obtained a forest release decree, a company still needs to acquire a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, from the land ministry – the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting.
In the case of PNM, the company has obtained both a forest release decree and an HGU permit. The question for observers now is whether PNM's current forest-clearing spree is allowed on the basis of the latter permit.
Environmental law experts say the situation is unprecedented, and thus there's no clear answer to that question.
But Grita Anindarini, program director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), an NGO, said PNM might have committed a crime by continuing to operate on the ground. This is because the company is essentially operating without a permit, which is a violation of a 2013 law on forest degradation, she said.
She pointed out that a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling states that plantations must have both land rights and plantation permits in order to operate. Before then, the plantation law stipulated that plantations only needed either land rights or plantation permits, not both.
Grita said this means companies need to have all permits in order to operate, including the forest release decrees if the concessions are located in former forest areas.
Greenpeace Indonesia also found another indication that PNM's land clearing might be illegal.
"After checking on the official website of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, there is no record of payments of forest resource provision and reforestation funds by PT PNM, from 2019 to March 7, 2022," Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Nico Wamafma said.
Both payments are a legal requirement for all companies engaged in logging activities.
Greenpeace Indonesia's Sekar said that if what PNM was doing was legal, then the company wouldn't have bothered suing the central government over the revocation of its forest release decree.
"Why did they sue the government? Because they knew that they needed the forest release decree [to operate]," she told Mongabay.