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Indigenous groups rebuke court OK for palm oil company to raze Papua forests

Mongabay - December 7, 2023

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Indigenous people in Indonesia's easternmost South Papua province have lambasted a court's decision to reject their lawsuit that seeks to overturn an environmental permit for a palm oil company to raze their ancestral forest.

By rejecting the lawsuit, the court is essentially greenlighting the company, PT Indo Asiana Lestari (IAL), to clear 26,326 hectares (65,000 acres) of primary forest, an area one-fifth the size of London, which sits on the company's concession, environmentalists say.

The lawsuit revolves around an ongoing conflict between members of the Awyu tribe, sometimes spelled Auyu, and IAL, whose 39,190-hectare (96,840-acre) concession forms one chunk of the larger Tanah Merah project that competing investors have fought over during the past decade.

If developed in full, the Tanah Merah project would replace 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) of the third-largest stretch of rainforest on the planet with several contiguous oil palm estates run by various companies – some of which are owned by unknown investors hiding behind anonymously held firms in the Middle East.

Besides problems with corporate secrecy, the Tanah Merah project has also been plagued with irregularities in its licensing process.

Some of the permits for the project were signed by a politician who was serving out a prison sentence for corruption. Others were allegedly falsified, with a high-ranking official's signature said to have been forged on key documents.

One of the latest permits obtained by IAL, a part of Malaysia's Whole Asia Group, is a decree by the head of the Papua investment agency (DPMPTSP) that gives approval to the company's environmental impact analysis, known as Amdal.

The decree essentially serves as an environmental feasibility permit to IAL.

The Awyu tribe argued that they weren't involved in the permit issuance process even though they're going to be affected by the company's operation, a violation of the 2021 law on Papua's special autonomy, which obligates the government to involve Indigenous people in the permit issuance process.

The tribe said it wasn't until August 2022 that they were aware of the existence of the letter, even though the letter was issued on Nov. 2, 2021.

They also said their objection to the project wasn't being considered at all in the permit issuance process.

Therefore, the tribe decided to file a lawsuit to challenge the letter at the state administrative court in Jayapura on March 13, 2023.

During seven months of trial, the judges were presented with 102 pieces of documentary evidence, six factual witnesses and three expert witnesses, all of which demonstrated irregularities in the issuance of IAL's permits, according to Greenpeace.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the court rejected the lawsuit on Nov. 2, 2023.

"I am extremely sad and disappointed because our legal struggle appears to have been in vain. But I'll never back down, I will carry on. I'm ready to die for the land that my ancestors bequeathed us," said Hendrikus Woro, a member of the Awyu tribe from the Woro clan who filed the lawsuit. "If the judges didn't believe us, they should have gone out to our traditional lands to see for themselves."

Sekar Banjaran Aji, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner who's a member of the Awyu tribe's legal team, said the judges' decision also ignored the potential impacts IAL had on the climate.

This is because the establishment of plantations in IAL's concession would entail the deforestation of 26,326 hectares of primary forest, which would subsequently release at least 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is 5% of Indonesia's estimated annual carbon emissions for 2030.

"We are disappointed with the judges' decision and will continue the fight until we win, to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples and to save Papua's forests from massive destruction and the worsening climate crisis," Sekar said. "This is an odd decision in that the judges not only did not side with Indigenous landowners and the environment, but also seemed to ignore many of the facts brought to court."

In their decision, the panel of three judges declined to looked at the Amdal process, which the Awyu tribe said had been flawed due to lack of participation by Indigenous peoples who will be affected. The judges said the Amdal wasn't the object being contested by the tribe at the court, and thus the only object under consideration was the decree that approves the Amdal.

Sekar said the judges failed to see that the Amdal is the basis for the issuance of the environmental feasibility permit.

The judges also argued that IAL had properly informed and involved Indigenous peoples, as shown by the existence of a letter from an Indigenous organization called LMA in Boven Digoel, the district where the project will take place.

In the letter, dated Aug, 29, 2018, the organization voiced its support to IAL.

Tigor Hutapea from environmental NGO Yayasan Pusaka, who's also a member of the Awyu people's legal team, said the judges were wrong in giving weight to the support letter.

"The LMA's formal legal status and its position under traditional Indigenous law is unclear; furthermore, it does not represent the Awyu Indigenous people and the Woro clan," he said. "It does not have the right to approve the release of forests belonging to Indigenous communities. This ignores the internationally mandated principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) by directly affected communities."

The head of the Papua's investment agency, Solaiyen Murib Tabuni, denied the allegation that the Amdal process was flawed.

He said there were some community members who rejected IAL, but there were also some who agreed, which was enough for the agency to issue the decree.

"Amdal has been carried out using the right procedure. There's been approval by the people, and that's why the decree was issued," Solaiyen said, as quoted by BBC News Indonesia.

While there's a support letter by the LMA, it's clear that IAL still hadn't properly consulted the Awyu tribe, particularly the Woro clan. This was shown by the company maps failing to acknowledge the existence of the Woro clan, Sekar said.Furthermore, the Amdal document also didn't include details of the environmental landscape of the concession, even though the forest houses a variety of endemic plant species, she said.

Sekar said the Woro clan might have been deliberately removed from the maps because they had protested againt IAL.

The Awyu tribe said they had opposed the palm oil project since IAL informed some of the communities on its plan to establish plantations.

The tribe feared that the establishment of large-scale oil palm plantations would displace them.

IAL has yet to start clearing land, but it has been gearing up to do so since early 2021 by deploying heavy equipment, which has alarmed local communities.

"We will lose our [ancestral] lands. Our livelihoods depend on [our] lands and forests, which will disappear," said Kasimilius Awe, the chief of the Awyu's Awe clan. "All of our lives depend on nature."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/12/indigenous-groups-rebuke-court-ok-for-palm-oil-company-to-raze-papua-forests