JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Hashtags of #AdaApaDenganBBC, #SavePapuaForest, and #Papua went viral in the middle of November after the BBC published a report on South Korea-based firm Korindo allegedly burning Papua’s forests to make room for palm oil plantations.
Indonesia shares the New Guinea island with the country Papua New Guinea. The western half of the island — comprising the provinces of Papua and West Papua — belongs to the archipelagic nation.
Greenpeace International and UK-based firm Forensic Architecture’s joint investigation — cited in the report — found that the company had burnt Papua’s forests from 2011 to 2016.
The report had utilised satellite images and spatial analysis to demonstrate the impact of the plantation on rainforests and to show why certain methods to clear lands.
Arie Rompas — head of the Forest Campaign at Greenpeace Indonesia — told TOC that compared to plantations on other Indonesian islands such as Sumatera and Kalimantan, plantations in Papua are “opened in a natural forest”.
He said this when asked about why the BBC coverage went viral on social media, despite the practice of land clearing for palm oil plantations being a widespread practice in Indonesia.
Groups such as Mightyearth, Pusaka Foundation — an advocacy group on protection of indigenous rights-based in Merauke — and a church organisation reported incidents of forest fires to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
“However, there have been no follow-ups so far,” Arie said of the report.
He hoped that coverage on forest fires will not just end at being widely reported but that such exposés will be followed by authorities’ tough efforts to tackle deforestation across the archipelago.
Forest degradation not a new occurrence in Papua
Environmental investigative journalism platforms The Gecko Project and Mongabay, alongside prominent local news outlet Tempo and Malaysian news outlet Malaysiakini — previously launched a collective investigation on a project called Tanah Merah in Papua.
Eight years ago, businessman Chairul Anhar told a press conference at an Islamic business forum that he had obtained a palm oil concession in Indonesia, which would allow him to convert 4,000 square kilometres of rainforest into a plantation.
The media outlets’ investigation shone a light on irregularities in the Tanah Merah project Chairul was linked to, such as shell companies and fake company shareholders — which allegedly even involved using the names of cleaning staff to obscure the actual owner of the company.
Around the time the project was set to commence, then-Boven Digul Regent Yusak Yaluwo was jailed for a provincial budget graft case.
Based on the investigation, he had signed essential documents related to that project behind bars.
Questions about the BBC coverage
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry, however, questioned why the BBC coverage had used a photograph taken in 2013 and presented it as though it is currently taking place.
Afni Zulkifli, a public policy communication expert at Riau’s Lancang Kuning University, stated that the video in 2013 cannot be used for investigative reporting, as the condition of the forest in question has changed significantly.
Afni added that the BBC article did not include complete information on when the fire occurred.
Further, according to Afni, the license was issued in 2009 — which was not under President Joko Widodo’s administration. Jokowi took office in 2014.
It added that several companies under Korindo — along with local companies as well as Singapore and Malaysian firms — have faced sanctions over forest fires.
Deforestation and palm oil industry
Palm oil and its derivatives have been used as ingredients for food, beauty, and household products, and alternative energy source or biofuel.
Unfortunately, the palm oil industry has been accused of causing massive deforestation and threatening the livelihoods of local communities living near the forests.
Arie said that palm oil plantations can be opened without destroying forests.
Most large palm oil corporations have committed to adopting NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation) policy that cut ties between the palm oil industry and deforestation since 2014.
“If all the regulations related to plantation and forestry are implemented correctly, there will be no plantations opening in peatland. Unfortunately, corruptive practices are still common in Indonesia (related to land conversion permit),” Arie said.
He wrapped up the interview by saying that transparency in the supply chain is needed to ensure that consumers will opt for sustainable palm oil products more easily.