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#AllEyesonPapua goes viral to highlight threat to Indigenous forests from palm oil

Mongabay - June 7, 2024

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – A campaign calling for the protection of Indigenous peoples' customary forests in Indonesia's easternmost region of Papua has gone viral, with the campaign's poster shared nearly 3 million times on Instagram.

The poster contains a link into an online petition that calls for the revocation of an oil palm concession threatening to clear the ancestral forests of the Awyu tribe (also spelled Auyu).

As of June 7, the petition has garnered more than 225,000 signatures, exceeding the campaigners' initial goal of 200,000 signatures and nearing the new goal of 300,000.

A video of a demonstration by the Indigenous Papuans outside Indonesia's Supreme Court has been widely shared on social media as well. Made by the nonprofit WeSpeakUp.org, the video has been viewed more than 3.9 million times and shared nearly 15,000 times on TikTok. The campaign uses the hashtag #AllEyesonPapua, a riff on the #AllEyesonRafah hashtag used as a rallying cry to draw attention to Israeli attacks on civilian refuges in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The Papua campaign aims to raise awareness of the risk to tribal forests from clear-cutting inside four oil palm concessions in Boven Digoel and Sorong districts. The four companies plan to establish more than 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) of plantations – an area twice the size of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta – that will overlap with the tribes' lands.

Three of the concessions are in Boven Digoel district, where they form part of the Tanah Merah mega plantation project; the concession holders are the companies PT Megakarya Jaya Raya (MJR), PT Kartika Cipta Pratama (KCP) and PT Indo Asiana Lestari (IAL).

The Tanah Merah project comprises into seven concessions that sit on an immense block of primary forest spanning 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) of rainforest, nearly double the size of New York City. If developed in full, it would be the single largest bloc of oil palms in Indonesia, the world's top producer of palm oil, run by several companies, some of which are owned by unknown investors hiding behind anonymously held firms in the Middle East.

In addition to issues with corporate secrecy, the Tanah Merah project has also been plagued with irregularities in its licensing process.

A 2018 investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project found that some permits were signed by a local politician while he was in jail for corruption.

A follow-up investigation found that other permits appeared to have been falsified, with an official's signature said to have been forged on key documents.

Development has begun on some of the concessions, but the three companies have been facing legal hurdles. Two of them, MJR and KCP, are at risk of losing their permits after a government evaluation found they'd failed to cultivate much of their concessions. In 2022, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry included both MJR and KCP on its list of concessions to be revoked, only to scrap that move and instruct the companies to stop clearing forests.

This allowed both companies to continue cultivating the lands they'd already cleared, spanning a combined 8,828 hectares (21,814 acres), but also required them to preserve the remaining 65,415 hectares (161,644 acres) of rainforest in their concessions.

Members of the Awyu tribe, who'd raised fears about losing their forests to MJR and KCP, welcomed the ministry's decision.

In March 2023, the companies decided to challenge the ministry's order by filing a lawsuit in a Jakarta court. They argued that the ministry's decision had harmed their business; MJR said the ministry had overlooked the investment the company had made into developing its plantation, totaling 660 billion rupiah ($40.5 million).

In September 2023, the court rejected the lawsuits. The companies filed an appeal, and in February 2024 a higher court ruled in their favor. That ruling annulled both the previous court's ruling and the ministry's order for the companies to curb their expansion.

Both the ministry and the Awyu tribe have since mounted an appeal at the Supreme Court. In May 2024, members of the Awyu tribe made the more than seven-hour flight from Tanah Merah to Jakarta to demand the Supreme Court issue a ruling that protects their forests. Dressed in traditional attire, they carried out a ritual while voicing their aspirations for the Supreme Court justices.

"I don't have other sources of livelihoods, other than the ones in the place where I live, my land, the nature, and the forest," said Rikarda Maa, an Awyu woman. "That's how I live. I don't want my land to be grabbed or taken away by the company."

'We want to live without money'

Besides MJR and KCP, another Tanah Merah concession holder, IAL, is also embroiled in a legal battle with the Awyu tribe.

In March 2023, the tribe filed a lawsuit against IAL at a court in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, seeking to overturn the company's environmental permit. They argued that they hadn't been consulted in the permit issuance process even though they stood to be affected by the company's operations – a violation of a 2021 law on special autonomy in the Papua region, which requires the government to involve Indigenous peoples in the permit issuance process.

In November 2023, the Jayapura court rejected the lawsuit despite a wealth of evidence and expert testimonies that all pointed to irregularities in the issuance of IAL's permits. The ruling essentially gave IAL the green light to clear 26,326 hectares (65,053 acres) of primary forest, an area one-fifth the size of London, inside its company's concession.

The Awyu mounted an appeal with a higher court in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi province, only for that court to reject the appeal based on technicalities. The tribe subsequently brought its case to the Supreme Court in March 2024.

At the demonstration outside the court in May, Hendrikus Woro, a member of the Awyu, pleaded to the court to listen to the Indigenous Papuans' concerns.

"Our place is being threatened by palm oil companies. This is human rights violation. We are victims of human rights violation," he said at the demonstration.

The Awyu forest is home to rare species such as iconic birds-of-paradise as well as many tree species that the community members depend on for various purposes, such as food, spice, medicine and timber.

"We don't want to live with money. We want to live without money," Hendrikus said. "Even without money, I could live for years in the forest. I don't have to think about money. I could live [just from the forest]."

'Where should we go?'

The Moi, another Indigenous tribe in Papua, are also fighting a legal battle against a palm oil company, PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS), which isn't part of the Tanah Merah project.

SAS used to hold licenses to a 40,000-hectare (99,000-acre) concession in Sorong district. But in 2021, the district head of Sorong revoked two of those permits: the location permit and environmental permit.

The district head argued that the concession had been left uncultivated and abandoned for years after SAS failed to obtain 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.

The district head's decision was followed in 2022 by the central government, which revoked two more of SAS's permits: a forest conversion permit, which would allow it to clear-cut rainforest, and a business permit.

SAS then challenged those revocations at a court in Jakarta in 2023, and in January 2024 won a ruling in its favor.

In May 2024, the Moi tribe filed an appeal against that ruling at the Supreme Court, saying they fear SAS will proceed with clearing their forests now that its forest conversion permit has been reinstated.

There are 18,160 hectares (44,874 acres) of ancestral forests remaining in SAS's concession. If SAS and IAL proceed with their respective expansion plans, the ensuing deforestation could release 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, experts have estimated.

To press their own case, members of the Moi tribe joined the Awyu at the May demonstration outside the Supreme Court.

"Ancestral forests are our place for hunting and gathering sago. The forests are our pharmacy. All our needs are there in the forests," said Fiktor Klafiu, a representative of the Moi tribe. "The presence of SAS harms us Indigenous peoples. If our ancestral forests are gone, where should we go to?"

Video of demonstration by the Indigenous Papuans outside Supreme Court: https://www.tiktok.com/@wespeakuporg/video/7374034516425411846

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/06/alleyesonpapua-goes-viral-to-highlight-threat-to-indigenous-forests-from-palm-oil