Source: South China Morning Post

Date: 11 June 2021

  • Human Rights Watch points out that weak governance in the forestry and plantation sectors is putting at risk Jakarta's pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • It also found palm oil expansion led to land conflicts, some of which involved the removal of land from villagers without replacement or adequate compensation

The clearing of natural forests for the expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia is putting its commitment to reducing emissions at risk, according to a new report, while also causing the loss of land and livelihoods among the country's rural communities.

While the Southeast Asian nation has made much progress in reducing forest fires since the great blazes of 1997-98, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report points out that land grabs and the destruction of peatlands are continuing, threatening to derail Jakarta's environmental efforts.
"If weak governance in the forestry and plantation sectors is not adequately addressed, Indonesia risks failing to deliver on its domestic and international commitments to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while also exacerbating human rights problems," HRW said in the June 3 report, titled "Why Our Land?".

On a visit to Indonesia last week, United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) president-designate Alok Sharma urged the country to set out a pledge to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century in order to prevent catastrophic impacts from the climate crisis.

During a joint press briefing with Sharma, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar outlined a plan for Indonesia to be carbon neutral in the forestry sector by 2030. "This sector could even store over 140 million tons of carbon emissions," she was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post.
Esther Tamara, a foreign policy and climate analyst with the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia – an independent, non-political body – said the target was "an ambitious plan that we all support, but we must take a realistic view of what's happening on the ground".

Baby snakes killed in a peatland forest fire are pictured at a palm oil plantation in Pekanbaru, Riau province, in 2019. (Photo by Agence France-Presse)

She said even though deforestation had hit a historic low last year, an area the size of Jakarta had been intentionally cleared since 2019 – and to reach the government's target, a maximum of 4.82 million hectares of land could be deforested between 2010 and 2030.

"However, government data showed that 4.71 million hectares were lost between 2010 and 2020. Simply put, we have used up all of our deforestation quota for [the 2030 target] in the last decade," Tamara said. "We cannot lose any more forests at this point."

Peatlands in Indonesia store an estimated 80 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to approximately 5 per cent of all carbon stored in soil globally, according to the HRW report. "As the world's largest producer of palm oil, Indonesia's clearing of natural forests, including forested peatlands, to make way for oil palm plantations is one of its largest sources of emissions," it said.

In addition to contributing to the climate crisis, the smog produced when these forests are burned to make way for plantations drifts regularly to Indonesia's neighbouring countries, the report said, threatening the health of local communities.

The clearing of land for plantations also increases the risk of forest fires, such as the 1997-98 blazes – the worst in Indonesia's history – that burned up to 11 million hectares of land, according to Bambang Hero Saharjo, professor of the environment and forest fires at Bogor Agricultural University. It also accounted for a quarter of total global carbon emissions that year.

"There are still several incidents of fires in palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, but their numbers are greatly reduced," he said. "This is due to vigorous legal action taken against plantations that burn the land, whether deliberately or accidentally."

Bambang, who has been investigating forest fires since 2000 and whose findings have helped secure convictions against plantation companies, said 300,000 hectares of land were burned last year compared with 1.6 million hectares in 2019.

A firefighter extinguishes a fire in a forest at Rambutan village in Ogan Ilir, Indonesia's South Sumatra province. (Photo by Agence France-Presse)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in 2019 issued a permanent moratorium on new forest clearances for activities such as palm plantations or logging, which Bambang said was a factor in reducing forest fires.

On May 24, a court in Siak, Riau province, jailed a director of the Duta Swakarya palm oil plantation for one year and fined the company 1 billion rupiah (US$70,00) for negligence resulting in forest fires.

According to HRW, the increase in land grabs and the destruction of peatland is partly due to corruption. In its report, the organisation alleged that business and government actors had sought to intimidate community members who resisted plantations expanding into their land or contested their loss of land.

"Indonesian authorities are permitting palm oil companies to destroy peatlands and cause other environmental harm with scant regard for the rights of local communities or the environmental consequences," said report author Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, senior researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch. "The Indonesian government should ensure that companies comply with laws to protect residents' land rights, as well as environmental laws, and do their part to address the climate crisis."

HRW said the expansion of palm oil plantations had fostered hundreds of land conflicts, some of which involved the expropriation of land from villagers without replacing it or providing adequate compensation.

"[The police then] arrested and jailed key individuals from the affected community as well as imposing a heavy police presence in villages in an apparent effort to deter resistance," it said.

The Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia in 2017 received 450 reports of land-related conflicts nationwide, with 163 implicating palm oil plantations.

The latter variety comprised the highest number of conflicts across all sectors in 2016 and 2017, while in 2018 the body recorded more than 1,000 land complaints by communities, including indigenous people, against palm oil companies.

Villagers gather harvested palm oil fruits at a collection centre in Syamtalira Bayu, Aceh on June 10. (Photo by Agence France-Presse)

On top of this, the report said the Indonesian government had allocated plantation concessions on land over which transmigration villages had land tenure rights, violating their right to property and creating conflicts between plantations and farmers.

Indonesia's transmigration programme, one of the largest population resettlement schemes in the world, is aimed at moving people from densely populated islands such as Java and Madura to outer islands with fewer residents, such as Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

However, the HRW report said, transmigrant families struggled with tenure insecurity and land disputes with indigenous peoples and business enterprises.

The organisation's investigations revealed that Sintang Raya – a palm oil company operating in West Kalimantan, and a subsidiary of South Korea's Deasang Corporation – had expanded its plantations in peatlands without genuine consultation with local residents, and without adequately consulting villagers or compensating them for the loss of land and livelihoods.

HRW said the company's operations had contributed to environmental degradation such as increased pests and salination of surface water and soil, impacting crop yields and food security in subsistence-based communities located in remote areas.

Aninda, a 30-year-old woman in the Mengkalang Jambu subdistrict, told HRW that most of the people in her community were now jobless. "Before [Sintang Raya took their plot] they worked their own land. Now, if you can't find employment on the plantation you have nothing to do," she said.

Adiratna, a 46-year-old woman from Seruat Dua village, said: "I can't work on my land because they put an excavator nearby. They put out the fire when I clear and burn my land."

HRW urged the government to carry out assessments of proposed plantation ventures to identify potentially harmful impacts, and only proceed "if human rights impacts can be adequately mitigated to avoid harm to affected communities".

"Do not proceed with developing oil palm plantations on land that has pre-existing land claims until those claims are resolved," it said