As oil palm moves in, the Yei people’s forest slowly disappears.

Yance Mahuze, a well-known member of the Yei ethnic group from Toray village, Sota sub-district, Merauke Regency, was unable to conceal his sadness. His eyes were glazed with tears. What was going on? He looked over his ancestral forest, now an oil palm plantation. Some individuals from the Yeinan tribe (a sub-ethnic group of the Marind people), had agreed to sell their land to plantation companies.

The land is situated at the upper reaches of the Maro River, which flows through many villages on its way to Merauke city. Villages inhabited by the Yei people include Erambo, Toray, Poo, Kweel, Bupul and Tanas. To reach these villages, you have to follow the Trans-Papua road.

Oil palm is not only found in Sota sub-district, it has also arrived in Elikobel. Mahuze feels a sense of pity, since as far as the eye can see the forest that was formerly full of trees is now replaced with oil palm

Previously, he said, the forest was dense, and so if people wanted to visit relatives across the border in Papua New Guinea, they just had to walk for a few hours. Now, with the trees gone, it is too hot. “You need more than a day to reach PNG”, he said.

The local government in Merauke and Papua Provincial Government have allowed oil palm investment to enter the Yei people’s land, and they have been free to fell trees on a seemingly limitless area. Many sacred places, places where the ancestors used to stop or burial sites, and even sago groves, have been cleared.

“Places which used to be totally forbidden to clear are now being felled for oil palm”, he said.

He said that there are two companies operating in the Yeinan forest on the Indonesia- Papua New Guinea border: PT Internusa Jaya Sejahtera and PT Agriprima Persada Mulia.

When they first arrived, the companies promised to give work to Yei people. “But promises remained mere promises, Now, the forests, rivers, swamps and animals in the Yeinan area no longer belong to the Yei people”, he said.

The forest has always been their source of food, he said. They meet their everyday needs from the forests, whether frrom the different kinds of plants or the many species of fish. The area is also rich in animal live, including cassowaries, other birds, ground rats, pig-nose turtles, crocodiles and more.

When the Catholic church arrived in the Yeinan area, it introduced rubber, which the local people have diligently planted.

The upper reaches of the Maro River where deforestation has occurred have silted up. Riverine wildlife can’t bear living in the Maro River. He explains that many turtles have been coming onto the land to take shelter under tall trees. Normally, the people find the turtles on the banks of the Maro River. The same goes for crocodiles – there used to be many in the Maro River, but now they have moved to the Wanggo River.

“The Merauke local government must stop any more investors coming to Yeinan”, he said. Read More »

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A statement from indigenous people in Boven Digoel

This statement was drafted during a meeting between indigenous Papuans affected by plantation development, NGOs and local government representatives, on 4th and 5th November 2016.

We are representatives of the Auyu, Wambon and Muyu peoples, who live within the administrative area of Boven Digoel Regency, Papua province, and primarily in villages that are targets for investment in the forestry and plantation sector. We have held a dialogue with government and policy-makers from Boven Digoel, along with Civil Society Organisations PUSAKA, SKP Merauke Archdiocese and WWF Papua, concerning government policy to protect and respect the rights of Papuan indigenous people to land and natural wealth. The even was held in the PBHK Convent Dormitory in Tanah Merah, on the 4th and 5th November 2016.

We take the view that the land is like our mother who protects human beings and all living creatures found on or under the earth. For us, land has many uses – it is the place we live, the place we build our lives together, a place for hunting, sacred places, holy places, historic places, our source of food, our source of income, our source of medicines, our particular social and cultural identity, a habitat for animals and plants, the land which is transferred when a marriage takes place, and a place for things visible and invisible.

We indigenous people control and own land and natural wealth based on customary law and the customs alive within each community, such as systems to regulate inheritance, gifts and fines. Land management and land use is still based on local knowledge and customs, decision-making councils, mutual aid, family labour, the use of traditional tools and working at a small-scale to meet life’s needs, also paying attention to protecting the environment.

We are currently facing problems and threats due to the investment activities of logging and oil palm companies which are taking land and forest products from our ancestral domain on a large scale. The companies are: PT Tunas Sawa Erma (Korindo), PT. Usaha Nabati Terpadu, PT. Trimegah Karya Utama, PT. Megakarya Jaya Raya, PT. Manunggal Sukses Mandiri, PT. Megakarya Jaya Raya, PT. Kartika Cipta Pratama, PT. Graha Kencana Mulia, PT. Energi Samudera Kencana, as well as logging companes PT Tunas Timber and PT Bade Makur Orissa, which all together have permits for 1,088,394 hectares.

The government gives out permits to companies without the local indigenous community first holding a meeting to decide what they want and give their agreement. The companies acquire land without a collective community decision or free and fair negotiations. Companies use a method of payment which they call “tali asih” [a vague term used to mean a thank-you payment] to obtain land from customary rights owners. They also organise celebrations, give aid, make promises of development, make open or veiled threats of violence, use manipulative techniques, and ask people to sign empty sheets of paper. When ‘tali asih’ or compensation money is given, it takes place secretively and as the company chooses and so only serves to create conflict and tension between members of the community, mutual suspicion and a feeling of disharmony. Read More »

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The voice of Papuan workers: the companies came and our income dropped.

When the oil palm plantation companies first arrive in the villages they promise jobs for indigenous Papuans, an effort to implant dreams of improved economic well-being and higher incomes. Once work starts however, the promises aren’t followed through and the imagined changes never come about. Meanwhile, the land and forest which used to provide the community livelihood disappears and control over the land passes to the companies.

This is the experience of indigenous Papuans who live near oil palm plantation companies. Coercive means are used to take their land and then the people have no other choice than to become labourers for the oil palm companies.

Marta Kandam (19 years old) a Papuan woman who lives in Gententiri village, Jair sub-district, Boven Digoel, told of her experiences before and after the arrival of an oil palm company.

“The economy of the community in Getentiri before the company arrived was based on rubber-tapping and our forest gardens. We used to sell the rubber to Pastor Keis. Our monthly income could be as much as 2.5 or even 3 million Rupiah,” she related.

The majority of peoples living along the Boven Digoel river have rubber farms and are dependant on that commodity as their main source of income. According to the head of the agriculture and plantation agency in Boven Digoel, Martinus Wagi, up to 6,000 hectares has been planted with rubber by the local population.

When the oil palm plantation PT Tunas Sawa Erma arrived in Gententiri, Jair sub-district and Ujung Kia, Kia sub-district, they felled and cleared natural forest, sago groves, rubber farms and plantations of fruit trees, which were replaced with oil palm plantation and company infrastructure.

“We stopped tapping rubber and went to work for the company, as unskilled plantation labour. We get paid for every day we work, but it still works out as less than before the company came. After we started working for the company, even if we work really hard, the monthly wage is only one and a half million Rupiah, or a bit less, no more than that”, Marta said, who has been working as a plantation labourer.

Read More »

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Grabbing land locally, changing climate globally: the winners and the losers in West Papua’s plantation boom

The potential impacts of climate change have long been a major concern around the Pacific reason, where, for example, many small islands are vulnerable to sea level rise. In recent years, the human rights situation and political status of West Papua has also been attracting more and more attention in the region. A conference in Sydney, from 3rd-4th November, set out to explore the connections between these two important themes, even though they may at first glance seem unrelated.

The organisers of the At the Intersection conference, from the West Papua Project at the University of Western Sydney, are planning to publish a report presenting the outcomes of the meeting. In the meantime, here’s the paper I submitted for the conference. It’s an analysis of the palm oil industry in West Papua, which has taken off exponentially since around 2010. It considers the parallels between the industry’s impacts, both at a local level for indigenous Papuans as the forest is destroyed, and globally, since the industry contributes significantly to causing climate change. At both levels, this represents an injustice, because certain more privileged actors have benefited, leaving others endure the problems caused.

The paper goes on to analyse who it that benefits from the palm oil business as resource industries tackle this new frontier. Three interest groups stand out: First of all there are the local and national politicians who give the permits, in a non-transparent system which seems to invite corruption. Then there are the companies themselves, which can be classified into three important groups: ambitious medium-sized plantation companies prepared to take risks to expand their land-bank, logging companies which can use their experience locally to expedite permit acquisition, and speculators, who keep a low profile while obtaining permits and then sell on the plantation concessions at a premium. The role of the state security forces (military and police) should also not be ignored – they side with companies, intimidating customary land rights holders into agreeing to development and repressing worker demands for better conditions, but also gain both through legal business interests and illegal sidelines.

The main barriers to plantation expansion are also examined. They include, at a grassroots level, the opposition and active resistance of indigenous communities throughout Papua, and the reaction of the industry itself which has been pushed to address its role in causing climate change and habitat loss.

palm oil in Papua and climate justiceGrabbing land locally, changing climate globally: the winners and the losers in West Papua’s plantation boom

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Yerisiam Gua Women: Our lives depend on sago

[awasMIFEE note: This is a translation of an article by Zely Ariane which was published by tabloid Jubi on 29th October, based on a similar article published by in May. As part of a response to a complaint to the RSPO, the company has since initiated a process of dialogue with the community, and they met on the 4th November to address the issue of the sago groves which it started to clear in April 2016. Those discussions are ongoing, but they come after a long history of problems with this plantation since it first started clearing forest in 2012. Two recent articles on the Mongabay site address question why the business community, for all its talk of sustainability, has turned a blind eye to what has been going on in Nabire: Why an RSPO complaint made in May 2016 has still not been made public on the company’s case tracker? and why are trading companies with no deforestation commitments continuing to buy from Goodhope, PT Nabire Baru’s parent company, claiming that they were not aware the company was engaged in deforestation? ]

Yerisiam Gua Women: Our lives depend on sago

Mama Yuliana Akubar was barefoot as she entered the Nabire District Legislative Council Building that lunchtime. Dressed in batik with a Papuan motif, she looked cold, still damp after the rain on the journey from Sima village in Yaur sub-district to Nabire.

“I did bring shoes, but let’s go in like this. This is what we Yerisiam people wear,” she said softly.

She came with 30 other members of the Yerisiam Gua ethnic group from Sima, to attend an exchange of opinion between PT Nabire Baru, the Sima community and the government, facilitated by the District Legislative Council.

Mama Yuliana reminisced about her hopes. She said that her elder brother had been one of those who gave the company permission, fuelling their hopes that it would improve the Yerisiam people’s standard of living.

Now the company’s actions are increasingly distant from its promises. “The company has backtracked from all we spoke about originally”, she said.

“Maybe the land doesn’t want us to work”

Dorkas Numberi (47 years old) explained that when the oil palm company moved in, the villagers were offered work. “Some people stared work, but maybe the land didn’t want to let them. After the Yerisiam people started working our feet were itching, and then covered in boils. Some people’s feet were swollen”, she said.

She told how her son and daughter also worked for the company. First of all they said it was planting work, but it turned out to be working in the nursery. “They were planting seedlings. But when they got home their bodies were all itchy and scratchy, they thought it was just normal, but then they had sores all over their body.” Read More »

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Stop Military business and respect the rights of indigenous Papuans.

Translation of a Press Release from a Coalition of Civil Society Organisations

On 16th July 2016 soldiers from the sub-district military command in Muting, Merauke Regency, came to look for Agustinus Dayo Mahuze, the chair of the Mahuze clan in Muting village, at his house. Their intention was to invite him to meet with the bosses of oil palm company PT Agriprima Cipta Persada (ACP) at the plantation site, and also to deliver a notice signed by the chair of the Kartika Setya Jaya co-operative, a military business linked to the District Military Comand 1707 in Merauke. The letter was dated 11th July 2016 and with reference number 8/16/VII/2016, and it gave notice of a permit of a work contract to clear land for oil palm in PT ACP’s concession..

The soldiers from the sub-district military command met Agustinus Dayo Mahuze away from his house, on the road towards Mbilanggo village, that afternoon, and stated the purpose of their visit. When the military officers told Agustinus Dayo about the plans between the co-operative and the company he felt threatened, afraid and anxious.

PT ACP’s has often involved the military and police in support of its business interests, and they have participated in activities related to obtaining the right to use land and in clearing land. This work has been accompanied by intimidation and threats of violence, generating nervousness and tension between the local community and the company, government and police and military personnel. Evidence for this are the letters the community repeatedly sent to the government, the police and military and the National Human Rights Commission between January and July 2015, to which they received no meaningful response.

Before that, the community had already made their feelings clear to the government and company by erecting notices around their ancestral land that read “the greater Mahuze clan’s land is not to be used for oil palm”. The community are also hoping to resolve the problem of a few members of the clan who have yet to repay money which had been given to a them as land compensation and which is being considered as proof of the transfer of land title, despite the fact that the clan members who accepted it did so without the general agreement of the whole greater Mahuze clan.

Read More »

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Indigenous people of Maybrat oppose PT ANJ’s ambitions

PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk, owned by the Tahija family, is currently planning to expand its oil palm business in areas administered by the Maybrat Regency, through a subsidiary company called PT Pusaka Agro Makmur (40,000 hectares).

PT ANJ Group already operates an oil palm business in the Maybrat area and across the regency border in South Sorong, through two other subsidiaries, PT Putera Manunggal Perkasa (which holds cultivation rights title (HGU) on 22,687 hectares) and PT Permata Putera Mandiri (which has HGU rights on 26,571 hectares). Apart from this PT ANJ also owns a company called PT ANJ Agri Papua which has a concession to extract non-timber forest products, in this case sago, from a 40,000 hectare sago forest, located in Metamani district , South Sorong Regency, West Papua Province.

The three oil palm companies were originally owned by PT Pusaka Agro Sejahtera and three Singaporean foreign investment companies Xinfeng Plantation Pte Ltd, Xinyou Plantation Pte Ltd and Wodi Kaifa Ltd. The three companies were bought in stages by PT ANJ Group. PT Pusaka Agro Makmur was the last to be acquired by PT ANJ, in October 2014.

In Papua there are some domestic and foreign companies in the plantation business which engage in the practice of ‘land banking’, selling on natural forest for which they have managed to obtain development permits to new owners, often those which like to present a “green, welfare” image. This technique benefits these new companies because it means they can avoid responsibility for problems in the past. It is a new method to conceal companies’ shady practices connected with land acquisition, land disputes and forest destruction.

PT ANJ gave its 2015 annual report the title “Responsible Development for the Future”. PT ANJ has also committed to improve its corporate image to “produce quality products that are environmentally-friendly while adhering to best management practices that help us to achieve excellent performance, ensure good employee welfare and empower the community as equal partners”. A noble and populist ambition sure to capture people’s attention.

One of the places the company wants to realise its ambition is Papua. “We have planned for our principal source of future production growth to come from eastern Indonesia, through the development of new plantations in West Papua, and in 2013 and 2014 we acquired 105,159 hectares of landbank across three concessions.” (ANJ 2015 Annual Report). Read More »

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New companies threatening the Papuan forest: Number 1 Pacific Inter-link.

There is currently some momentum for change in the palm oil industry, aiming to reduce its disastrous environmental and social impact. In Papua, some of the biggest companies, such as Sinar Mas, Musim Mas and Wilmar, have all abandoned plantation plans after signing up to ‘no deforestation’ policies.1 The Indonesian Government may also finally take some action to bring the industry under control. A new moratorium on palm oil permits is reportedly being prepared and the Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya has made clear that one of the moratorium’s main objectives is to save Papua’s forest.

However, many companies with ambitions to vastly increase their plantation area are still looking to Papua as one of the few areas where large amounts of land are still potentially available. Plantations on this new frontier are often much larger than elsewhere in Indonesia, meaning huge environmental destruction and drastic changes which have a devastating effect on local indigenous populations.

Accurate information on how the oil palm industry is developing in Papua is crucial to be able to assess whether the changes in the industry will actually protect the forest and make a positive difference to the lives of indigenous Papuans, or if it will just give a better image masking the same old problems. Nevertheless, obtaining full data is still a major challenge. This series of articles aims to give it a shot, profiling a few of the newest companies to start operations in Papua, especially companies which have recently started cutting the forest, or appear to be preparing to start work. The first is a particularly worrying case, where forest clearance started last year: Pacific Inter-link.


In a remote area of Southern Papua an immense block of 2,800 square kilometres (the size of Luxembourg, or three times Singapore) of primary rainforest has been given permits for oil palm, and deforestation has already started. In an incredibly brazen move by local politicians, (later supported by the Forestry Ministry), this whole area was given away to just one company, the Menara Group, divided into seven contiguous concessions.

The Menara Group has since sold most of the concessions to two Malaysian-based companies: Pacific Inter-link took four of the concessions (PT Megakarya Jaya Raya, PT Kartika Cipta Pratama, PT Graha Kencana Mulia and PT Energi Samudera Kencana) and Tadmax Sdn Bhd took two (PT Trimegah Karya Utama and PT Manunggal Sukses Mandiri). The remaining concession, PT Usaha Nabati Terpadu, either still belongs to the Menara Group or has been sold to an unknown buyer.

Pacific Inter-link started work on one of the concessions, PT Megakarya Jaya Raya in mid 2015. Satellite images show that by April 2016, 2,840 hectares of forest had been cleared. About one third of that area was on deep peat, and the area lies within an intact forest landscape. Most of PT Megakarya Jaya Raya’s concession is classified on Indonesian government maps as primary forest, as are the other three concessions.

Pacific Inter-Link Deforestasi April 2016

Read More »

  1. in the case of Wilmar, the abandoned plantations would have planted sugar-cane. 

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An appeal not to issue Cultivation Rights Title to the Korindo Group in North Maluku.

[Korindo, the South Korean timber and plantation company which has caused so many problems on it’s plantations in Merauke and Boven Digoel, Papua, is also facing opposition from communities confronted with a new plantation in Gane Bay, on the island of Halmahera in Maluku. This is a translation of a press release issued in Jakarta on 26th May by environmental groups Walhi and TuK Indonesia.]

ganeLarge-scale oil palm plantation expansion in Sumatra and Kalimantan has resulted in environmental degradation, exceeding the state’s ability to control its impact. Currently oil palm plantation expansion is moving towards the east of Indonesia, creating multidimensional consequences for the community of Gane in the South of Halmahera island, North Maluku. The people of South Halmahera, who have managed to survive for hundreds of years in an area with few water resources by cultivating perennial crops in the forest, are currently experiencing drought and the destruction of coastal ecosystems caused by the forest being denuded to make way for oil palm plantations.

According to Fahrizal Dirhan, organising manager for Walhi North Maluku, “In Gane, South Halmahera, North Maluku a company has been acting irresponsibly towards the community. There are indications that land clearing for the palm oil plantation of PT Gelora Mandiri Membangun, a subsidiary of the Korindo Group, has been accompanied by multiple violations, such as haphazard forest clearance without paying attention to environmental concerns, and this is having a severe impact on local social and ecological conditions, especially in Gane Bay, which is a coastal area with small islands.”

“PT. Korindo’s plantation is located in three sub-districts, South-west Gane, which is made up of eight villages. South-east Gane, where there are five villages, and the Goronga Archipelago, with seven villages. The company’s plantation area was described in the South Halmahera Bupati’s decree 103/2011, issuing a location permit for plantation development.

“Our findings in the field have shown that PT Korindo’s land clearing work has resulted in the death of several coral reefs, due to the rapid rate of sedimentation as water flows over the bare earth to the coast, and this has made life difficult for local people, the majority of whom work as farmers or fisherfolk.”

As a response to this situation, the community of Gane has written to the North Maluku office of the National Land Agency to ask it to halt the process of issuing Cultivation Rights Title (HGU) to the Korindo Group, which started on 16th May this year. The area which PT Gelora Membangun Mandiri wishes to develop as an oil palm plantation is 11,003.9 hectares.

“Several considerations form the basis for the community’s demand. Amongst others, the community was opposed to PT Korindo’s plans from the outset, but later the company manipulated statements from the people by using village bureaucracies as a tool to pressure people, which created a tension between people who supported the plantation and those wh were against. Also, Korindo has lied to the people, planting stakes on the people’s land and claiming that this land is within their HGU area, meaning that people going to their gardens are forbidden to cross the company’s area. People trying to defend their land have experienced intimidation and discrimination.” Read More »

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Is the government about to take action to save Papua’s forests?

There are positive indications that President Joko Widodo’s recent promise to place a moratorium on new oil palm permits across Indonesia may soon become reality. Statements from key figures in the Forestry and Environment Ministry suggest that one of the main aims of this new policy is to stop the same kind of decimation of forests happening in Papua as has already taken place on Sumatra and Borneo.

The news website has been reporting on developments, and most recently has published an interview with Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya, copied below. The minister described the four stage process currently underway at the ministry to review all permits to release land from the state forest estate for plantations. Apparently all new applications have already been rejected,  and the next stages will be to terminate the process for all applications which already have in-principle permits, and then revoke forest release permits granted in 2015 and 2016.

The fourth stage would happen at a later date, but would go even further,  a review of old permits which were granted before 2015. The example she gives, 300,000 hectares of forest which has been granted permits but is being treated as a ‘land bank’ by Malaysian companies, appears to refer to the concessions granted to the Menara Group in Boven Digoel, now sold on to Tadmax Sdn Bhd and Pacific Inter-link. Cancelling these permits alone would save a significant tract of undisturbed lowland forest.

If all this is true, it would undoubtedly be good news for the forests of Papua, where over a million hectares is thought to be at risk from oil palm development. It would also be good news for indigenous communities, as there are almost no existing palm oil plantations which have not brought serious social problems, such as conflict and loss of livelihood.

However, any optimism must be tempered with caution. The policy governing this new moratorium has not been published, and some parts of the oil palm industry have been lobbying against it.  The government’s existing moratorium on new permits in primary forest and peatland hasbeen shown to be a weak instrument, and has been gradually reduced in size as companies lobby for new permits.  How effectively any new moratorium is implemented would also be an important issue.

Finally, a oil palm moratorium alone would not solve all the problems that rural indigenous Papuans face as a result of the structural discrimination and structural violence that pervades Papuan society, including Papuan communites who have to deal with the effects of plantations which have already started work around Papua.  Nevertheless, if the plans the minister outlines below do come to fruition, it would be an extremely positive step forward. Read More »

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