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.

Unprecedented steps taken to reinforce President’s palm oil expansion moratorium 

JAKARTA ( – Indonesia’s Ministry of the Environment and Forestry continues to work quickly in following up on President Joko Widodo’s directive that a palm oil expansion moratorium be imposed, as announced in mid-April.

The results of the second round review of areas which lie outside of the existing moratorium map in which the palm oil expansion moratorium is to be applied have been finalized by the ministry.

The results of the first round review saw 851 thousand hectares included in the palm oil expansion moratorium, all of which had been the subject of new palm oil permit applications.

This figure was then updated, with the addition of another almost 100 thousand hectares, bringing the total area in which the palm oil expansion moratorium was imposed from the first round review to nearly 950 thousand hectares.

“Areas included in the palm oil expansion moratorium involve concessions that have been given an in-principle approval letter, whether their concession areas have been delineated or not. This is the object of the second round review,” Dr Siti Nurbaya, Minister of the Environment and Forestry, told in a discussion until nearly midnight on “biodiversity and the palm oil expansion moratorium” at her official residence which coincided with World Biodiversity Day on Sunday (May 22).

Also in attendance at the discussion were the Secretary General of the Environment and Forestry Ministry, Bambang Hendroyono, and the Director-General of Forestry Planology and Environmental Governance, San Afri Awang.

The minister announced that the results of the second round review will lead to the moratorium being imposed in another 600 thousand hectares outside of the existing moratorium map, encompassing 51 concessions.

“This means that from the results of the first and second round reviews, there are almost 1.6 million hectares which are to be subject to the palm oil expansion moratorium beyond the existing moratorium map. This doesn’t include millions of hectares of convertible production forest areas for which I have instructed the issuing of new palm oil permits to stop, even though these areas are outside of the existing moratorium map,” the minister explained.

The minister elaborated further on the review process, describing how the third round review will involve all forest release permits for palm oil plantation development granted in the period 2015-2016, especially in the provinces of Papua and West Papua.

“All forest release permits for the period 2015-2016 will be cancelled. We have a strong legal basis for doing this after I received the initial findings of the third round review,” the minister asserted.

She also explained that the scope of the fourth phase of the review, to be conducted at a later stage, will include all longstanding forest release permits for palm oil plantation development, by looking at the current forest cover conditions in these areas.

“Several of our findings indicate that in areas where forest release permits have been granted since 2011 in Papua, nothing has been done there and they are simply landbanks. We even found that some of these permits have been traded. For example, seven forest release permits for palm oil development in that province, amounting to almost 300 thousand hectares, were sold to a number of business groups in Malaysia. This practice of trading involves 20 percent of the areas that should be given to communities,” the minister bemoaned.

A message from the President

The Forestry Minister took the opportunity to convey a message given to her by the President about the need to protect the forests of Papua. The President told me, “It is essential that the forests on the Papua islands are managed prudently. We really have to safeguard these forests and must formulate and implement a development concept in Papua to the best of our ability.”

She added that the President also called for the palm oil expansion moratorium in Papua islands to be made the number one priority and for an appropriate concept to be sought for the further development of Papua and West Papua while the palm oil expansion moratorium is imposed in these provinces.

Request for the expansion of 5 million hectares turned down

Minister Siti Nurbaya also related her experience when accompanying President Joko Widodo in a meeting with representatives of various business groups, including some from the palm oil sector.

In the meeting, she explained, it was put to the President by more than one of the palm oil business groups in attendance that the expansion of 5 million hectares for palm oil development was necessary for biofuel, among other things.

“During the meeting, the President merely listened to the request. However, once the meeting was over, the President unhesitatingly said that he didn’t agree with the request and duly instructed me not to act on it,” the minister disclosed.

She pointed out that this demonstrates that the President truly wants the palm oil sector to focus on maximizing productivity through intensification programs in existing palm oil concessions as well as to avoid creating landbanks by means of new palm oil permits.

When asked the names of the palm oil business groups which made this proposal to the President, the minister simply replied: “I know the names of course, but this doesn’t need to be exposed to the public. It’s sufficient that I’ve taken note of this. It’s just that I was a bit taken aback by this request seeing that it came from palm oil business groups which claim to have adopted a strong sustainability policy.”


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