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Can REDD save the rainforests of Papua and West Papua? (Part 1)

In April 2007, the governors of Aceh, Papua and West Papua held a summit in Bali, backed by the World Bank. They offered to stop deforestation in return for international carbon financing. Dorjee Sun’s company Carbon Conservation was going to trade the carbon credits.

That deal came to nothing.

Today, the rainforests of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua are under serious threat. Home to more than 250 indigenous groups and unique biodiversity, the forests face destruction under a series of mega-development projects.

Massive oil palm plantation project

In December 2018, a joint investigation by Mongabay, The Gecko Project, Tempo and Malaysiakini reported on a massive oil palm plantation project, covering an area of 2,800 square kilometres of land. So far, only 2% of the forest has been cleared for the project in the district of Boven Digoel in the east of Papua Province. But if developed in full, the project would become the largest single oil palm plantation in Indonesia.

In the article, “The secret deal to destroy paradise”, the joint investigation describes the incremental process of deforestation that has taken place over much of Southeast Asia:

First comes logging that fragments and damages the integrity of the forest, bringing roads that act as a conduit for more pressures. The damaged forest becomes prone to fires and, finally, it is clear-cut to be replaced with plantations.

A giant sawmill is under construction on the land in Boven Digoel. The sawmill would consume timber for decades to come, guaranteeing the destruction of vast areas of forest. The Malaysian logging and palm oil firm Shin Yang is a major shareholder in the sawmill.

In Sarawak, Shin Yang has established large scale oil palm plantations on the land of the Penan indigenous people, often without even consulting the Penan.

Non-transparent corporate structure

The rights to the land had been bought through a maze of shell companies – effectively hiding who was behind the project. The permits for the oil palm concession were issued by the district chief, Yusak Yaluwo, who at the time was in jail in Jakarta, convicted of siphoning off US$7 million from the district budget.

The proposed plantation area was divided into seven areas, each allocated to a different company. A company called the Menara Group was supposedly in control of the companies. But when the joint investigation looked into some of the shareholders of the seven companies, it turned out that the shareholders were not the owners of the companies. Their names had been used, without their knowledge, as fronts.

Other shareholders were more prominent figures, the investigation found: Chairul Anhar, secretary general of the Indonesia-Malaysia Business Council; Mohamad Hekal, in 2014 elected to Indonesia’s parliament; and Dessy Mulvidas, who a source inside the Menara Group told the investigation team, was the “pioneer” behind the scheme.

A complex ownership structure emerged, involving four holding companies in the United Arab Emirates. A 2018 Greenpeace report links four companies operating in Boven Digoel that are 80% owned by these UAE companies to the Hayel Saeed Anam Group, a conglomerate owned by one of Yemen’s wealthiest families. The Hayel Saeed Anam Group denies that it ever owned the companies.

The notorious Malaysian logging company, Rimbunan Hijau, is a minor shareholder in one of the companies that has land for a plantation.

When Indonesian activists tried to find the Environment Impact Assessment documents from the palm oil concessions, they tracked down only a handful of photocopied pages from two of the EIAs.

Indigenous people oppose the destruction of their forests

The forest that would be cleared to make way for this massive logging and palm oil project is on the ancestral lands of the Auyu indigenous people. The Auyu oppose the palm oil project. In October 2017, the chief of the Auyu in Boven Digoel said, “We are ready to die for our land and ancestral forest.”

In September 2018, President Joko Widodo announced a freeze on new oil palm concessions. But this does not apply to existing permits – meaning that the destruction could continue. But Jokowi also authorised a review of all existing licenses. If the existing licenses are cancelled, huge areas of forest would be saved.

Mufti Ode, of Forest Watch Indonesia, told Mongabay, that,

“[M]any companies have emerged who only want to seize natural resources without regard to environmental conditions and the rights of indigenous peoples. Companies proven to have violated the licensing process and who fail to recognize the existence and rights of the people must [have their licenses] revoked.”

But this massive oil palm plantation is not the only threat to Papua and West Papua’s forests. Part 2 of this post will look another mega-development – the Trans-Papuan Highway, that will open up vast areas of forest for exploitation.

PHOTO Credits: Feature image – Nanang Sujana for the Gecko Project. Sawmill and new oil palm plantation – Ulet Ifansasti for Greenpeace.

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