In 2016 plantation expansion in Papua slowed due to international pressure – but can it last, and can indigenous Papuans set the agenda?

In 2016 indigenous opposition to new plantations has continued around Papua: In Muting, Merauke some clans from the Marind, Yei and Mandobo ethnic groups have declared that their land is not to be used for oil palm. Representatives of the Auyu, Wambon and Muyu ethnic groups in Boven Digoel and members of the Aifat people in Maybrat have complained that they have been deceived by palm oil companies operating in their areas. People in Sorong and Maybrat regencies have demonstrated to demand the revocation of plantation permits in their areas. In Keerom, the Marap people have established customary law blockades and held protests at state-owned company PTPN II’s plantation, saying they were taking back the land the company grabbed decades ago. The Yerisiam people in Nabire have also opposed a palm oil company which started clearing their sacred sago groves for a smallholder program, when the community had expressly requested the company to leave the groves alone just two months before.

These local conflicts are not a new phenomena, Papuans have been determined to defend their rights to ancestral land for many years. In recent years, as more and more plantations are established in Papua, many communities realise they have more to lose if their forest is destroyed than they might gain from the plantation economy. Opposition from local indigenous communities has been successful in halting several plantation projects in Papua, where potential investors regularly cite the problems of obtaining rights to indigenous land as one of their main obstacles.

However, a major change this year is that action at a entirely different level also seems to be changing the outlook for the palm oil industry in Papua, limiting its expansion, which would be good news for the forest, and probably forest-dependent communities too. In 2016 several international environmental organisations have chosen to focus on companies involved in Papua, which they are starting to see an important frontier for forest protection.

As a result, several oil palm companies have halted planting, and it looks likely that the pace of forest conversion will have significantly slowed as a result. But it is by no means certain that this trajectory is set to continue, it could still go either way depending on whether a new push for sustainability manages to transform the industry or whether it fails and settles back into business as usual.

The main mechanism being used to drive this change is through companies’ supply chains. In 2013 and 2014, key palm oil trading and refining companies bowed to pressure from their major customers and signed up to policies saying they would not source palm oil from companies engaged in deforestation, draining peat bogs or exploiting local people or workers.

At least 60% of palm oil traded around the world is now supposed to be covered by these ‘no deforestation, peat or exploitation’ (NDPE) commitments. The three largest trading companies, Wilmar, Golden Agri Resources and Musim Mas, which were all well-known for terrible records of deforestation, were convinced to sign up, and this had an important direct result for Papua as all three groups abandoned plantation plans which would have involved deforestation (Wilmar c.160,000 hectares of sugar cane plantations, Musim Mas 160,000 hectares of oil palm plantations and GAR 20,000 hectares of oil palm).

But more than that, they started publishing quarterly lists of the mills and plantations which fed their refineries, so that their suppliers could be traced and violations of their sustainability policies highlighted. This is what has been such an important tool to change the industry. And since in Papua it would be almost impossible to imagine a large palm oil plantation without causing deforestation, it could potentially be a major deterrent to any new plantation project. That is, if the policies are applied properly.

The companies which have proved most vulnerable to this challenge have been groups with mature and productive plantations elsewhere which risk losing market access if the trading companies should suspend purchases. This was the case in PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya’s two concessions in South Sorong Regency after the three trading companies suspended purchases in 2015. ANJ, which has 82,468 hectares of concessions in Papua, decided to call a temporary halt to land clearing to after being suspended by major traders. Eagle High Plantations, which through subsidiary PT Varia Mitra Andalan owns a concession in the same area, has also stopped forest clearance, and thereby managed to protect its market access.

After an investigation into its plantation business received widespread attention in September, Korindo, the Korean company which has been rapidly expanding its business near the Digoel River has also agreed to halt land-clearing on all their palm concessions, including PT Tunas Sawaerma and PT Papua Agro Lestari in Papua and another conflict-ridden concession in North Maluku, PT Gelora Mandiri Membangun.

The crucial question now is what happens next. The companies which have stopped planting have made clear that it is a temporary measure. Korindo has described its decision to stop land-clearing as a ‘temporary moratorium’, while ANJ wrote in its annual report that it believes that “West Papua requires a different approach to the rest of Indonesia” where “clearance of some land cannot be avoided. ANJ has also continued working to secure the remaining permits it needs for its remaining concession since it imposed its moratorium, and a public consultation for the Environmental Impact Assessment was held in June 2016.

This can only be interpreted as the companies viewing the sustainability challenge as an obstacle which they may someday find a way around. If they do find some weakness which would allow them to keep expanding their plantations and still being able to sell their product, they are likely to take it. This could be the big traders weakening or not enforcing their policies, or finding other buyers who don’t care where the oil comes from.

There are still trading companies who do not feel the need to take on sustainability policies. An example in Papua is Pacific Inter-link, which started work on the first concession in its 160,000 hectare estate in 2015. Since that company also refines, ships and markets end-products in the Middle East and Africa, it is much less dependent on customers which might make demands based on sustainability criteria. It has continued work on its plantation in 2016.

Nevertheless, no information has yet emerged that any new plantation companies have started land-clearing in 2016. We’ll have to wait for more analysis of satellite images and local reports over the next few months to confirm that but, given that five plantations started clearing Papuan forest in 2012, two more in 2013, five more in 2014 and six more in 2015, this may mean that less companies are prepared to take the risk of starting costly clearance work when they may not be able to sell their product.

A further piece of substantial good news for Papua’s forests could have come from the forestry ministry this year, but it didn’t. The Minister for the Environment and Forestry has been preparing a policy for a five-year moratorium on new oil palm plantations, and has spoken specifically about the need to stop the industry consuming the intact forests of Papua.

The promised moratorium was expected months ago, but has still not been published, presumably held up by other government departments who oppose the policy and pressure from the industry. However, the Forestry and Environment Ministry does claim that it is no longer issuing permits to release state forest lands to plantation companies. If this is true, it will act as a partial brake to new development, although large tracts of forest exist, particularly in Papua Barat province, which are not part of the state forest estate and therefore only require permits issued by local and provincial government.

A crucial question is whether the chancing commercial and political environment for the palm oil industry is actually changing anything for the forest peoples of Papua. After all, ‘No Exploitation’ is one of the pillars shared by companies’ sustainability policies. Amongst other requirements this means engaging in a process of Free Prior Informed Consent with indigenous peoples affected by plantations, especially those who hold customary land title.

Yet it appears that the ‘No Deforestation’ pillar is getting all the attention. When Greenpeace produced a report identifying problematic concessions in the supply chain of IOI, a Malaysian company, it contacted the trading companies and found that while several had already taken action to exclude or negotiate with two corporate groups due to deforestation (ANJ and Eagle High), only one had taken action in the case of PT Nabire Baru (Goodhope), where the main ongoing problem were social: lack of FPIC and human rights abuses by Police Mobile Brigade based at the plantation. Mighty’s report into Korindo’s oil palm plantations in Papua focussed primarily on analysis of deforestation and the likelihood of illegal burning, even though the social impact of Korindo’s concessions has also been dire.

It’s not particularly surprising. Deforestation is easy to prove – nowadays anyone can download satellite images from the web and see where plantations are expanding. But social elements are much more subjective – there are often conflicting views from within a community itself on whether it has accepted or rejected a plantation, and in most cases full data on the steps a company has taken to negotiate access is not even available.

Nevertheless this has an effect which is potentially concerning. The driver for change in the industry becomes environmental organisations, which are often internationally based. Even though the NDPE momentum is also aimed at protecting indigenous communities rights, their movements do not have the power to use the same tools to hold companies to account when those rights are violated. In many cases, the forest protection agenda and local indigenous agenda are likely to concur, but if they don’t, the affected communities have less agency to effect change.

This is a problem which should not be ignored in Papua, where ethnic Papuans in general are marginalised, and rural indigenous communities face the specific problem of being impoverished by the acceleration of development projects, and so the issue of who sets the agenda is important. 2016 has also been a year when Papuan voices have been repressed. All year long, thousands of people have been detained in mass arrests aiming to prevent any demonstration taking place which is considered to support Papuan self-determination. A Papuan news website,, has been blocked in Indonesia. The military, and militarised police units like the Police Mobile Brigade, are ever-present and are a real threat to indigenous people who might oppose development projects in their area.

So while these industry-led initiatives which appear to be having some impact are to be welcomed, they are no substitute for a more fundamental transformation which gives indigenous Papuans real power to determine the future of the forest that they depend on, as their ancestors did. That is a wider question, but in the meantime, one practical challenge is to improve communication so that the ‘no exploitation’ aspect of NDPE policies is upheld, and indigenous communities can use it to defend their rights.

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