Indonesian anti-corruption body denounces deforestation license for oil palm giant found guilty of wrongdoing

Monday, February 18th, 2019

Indonesia’s anti-corruption body has asked the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry to review its decision to authorise the conversion of 10,000 hectares of forest in Buol district, Central Sulawesi, into oil palm plantations.

According to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the ministry’s decision is “not acceptable” because the permit behind this concession has been obtained illegally.

Laode M Syarif, Deputy Chair of the KPK, has said that the ministry must reflect on its decision. “I don’t think [the authorisation] can be considered as something legal [when] the principle permit was obtained through bribery,” he said during an event organised by the World Resources Institute in Jakarta in January.

The KPK official was referring to the corruption scandal that led to the convictions in 2013 of the then Regent of Buol, Amran Batalipu, and the businesswoman Siti Hartati Tjakra Murdaya, whose family owns the oil palm giant Hardaya Plantations Group.

That year, Siti Hartati Murdaya was found guilty of paying three billion rupiah ($312,000 USD) in bribes to Amran Batalipu to obtain plantation permits in Buol for her companies PT Citra Cakra Murdaya and PT Hardaya Inti Plantations.

As a result, Amran Batalipu was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, while Siti Hartati Tjakra Murdaya received a prison sentence of two years and eight months.

Civil society has also criticised the ministry’s decision. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), a conservation NGO, has expressed frustration at the authorisation for rewarding a company found guilty of breaking the law.

According to Walhi, the authorisation is also contrary to the September 2018 presidential moratorium, currently in force, on the release of forest areas for oil palm plantations. Walhi has urged the ministry to cancel the authorisation immediately and announced it is prepared to take the issue to court if necessary.

Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya has defended the move and alleged that the authorisation does not violate any rules as the permit had already been issued before the moratorium came into force. Mongabay Indonesia has noted that the minister has failed to acknowledge the illegality of the permit.

Buol’s current regent, Amiruddin Rauf, who in May 2018 advised against the authorisation, has indicated he will seek clarifications about the legality of the ministry’s decision.

In 2014, Siti Hartati Murdaya was released on parole, raising suspicions that the decision had more to do with her political connections – she is reportedly closely linked to Indonesia’s Democratic Party – than to her being qualified for early release. At the time, the KPK criticised the decision for undermining the fight against corruption.

The Murdaya family’s oil palm companies reportedly manage at least 145,000 ha of concessions in Papua, North Kalimantan and Central Sulawesi provinces. The group supplies palm oil to several global brands, including L’Oreal, Pepsico, Nestle, Mars – which claims to have taken actions to exclude the group from its supply chain – Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Kraft Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Hershey, Colgate-Palmolive and others.

The Buol Farmers Forum has accused Siti Hartati’s companies of using military and police force to seize forests and their traditional farmlands in Buol since the mid-1990s.

In 2018, Greenpeace included Hardaya Plantations Group on its list of Indonesian “dirty producers”. According to the conservation NGO, PT Hardaya Inti Plantations cleared 434 ha of forests in Buol District between December 2014 and March 2018.

The issuing of licenses for oil palm plantations in Central Sulawesi has been plagued by allegations of irregularities and conflicts with local communities, who accuse companies of stealing their lands.

“Central Sulawesi has become the biggest area for palm oil expansion,” Abdul Haris, head of Walhi’s provincial chapter, told Mongabay last year.

In 2016, more than 7,000 square kilometres of palm concessions were issued, a 55 per cent increase over the previous year. Between 2001 and 2016, Central Sulawesi lost 10 per cent of its tree cover, an area amounting to 5,750 square kilometres.

In recent months, The Gecko Project, established by Earthsight in partnership with Mongabay, has shed light on the corruption driving land deals and the destruction of tropical rainforests in Indonesia.

In its latest instalment, The Secret Deal to Destroy Paradise, the Gecko Project has showed how permits for the giant Tanah Merah oil palm plantation in Papua were issued from a prison cell by a politician serving a sentence on unrelated corruption charges.

The article exposed the high levels of secrecy surrounding the licensing process and the identities of the investors behind the project. The Tanah Merah plantation – which could span 2,800 square kilometres once fully developed – falls on the land of indigenous people, whose rights have been roundly ignored.

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