As land availability shrinks, palm oil turns to Papua's forests: Greenpeace

CNN Indonesia – December 3, 2020
Smoke rises from fires on land cleared for palm oil plantations in Papua – Undated (Forensic-Architecture)

Jakarta – Environmental organisation Greenpeace says that corporations in the palm oil sector have begun to venture into forests in Papua in concert with diminishing land availability in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

According to Greenpeace Indonesia's data, Kalimantan lost 1,778,125 hectares of forest while Sumatra has lost 712,001 hectares to palm oil plantation concessions between 2001 and 2019.

"Land in Sumatra, Kalimantan, has run out. So they (palm oil plantations) have begun to shift their expansion into Papua. As it happens Papua's forests are still good", Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaign spokesperson Arie Rompas told CNN Indonesia by phone on Wednesday December 2.

Rompas conceded that it is still difficult to get an accurate figure on the extent of forests that have been lost to palm oil because the government does not publish data on land concession permits. "Plantation concessions in Indonesia currently cover an area of 22,192,649 hectares".

Greenpeace data meanwhile shows that permits issued for palm oil plantations in Papua began to increase in 2005. In 2019 there was 2,951,883 hectares of land allocated for palm oil plantations in Papua province and 1,867,969 hectares in West Papua province.

The land area allocated for palm oil plantations still has forest cover so this gives rise to suspicions that in several cases land has intentionally been cleared by burning.

Limited information

Rompas suspects that aside from the diminishing land availability in other parts of Indonesia, Papua has also become a target for expansion of palm oil plantations because of limited information available to local people there.

He explained that much of the land in Papua is actually owned by customary communities but they do not yet have formal rights to manage the forests so there position is legally weak.

This situation, according to Rompas, makes it easier for the government to give plantation business permits and licenses to palm oil plantations. Although social conditions there also have the potential to give rise to land conflicts with local communities.

"Palm oil can only grow in forests, tropical forests. And in Indonesia, there (Papua) has become one of the most appropriate choices. In the midst of policies in Indonesia which also welcome the palm oil business industry", he said.


Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) Chairperson Joko Supriyono however disputes Greenpeace's assumptions. According to Supriyono the expansion of palm oil plantations in Papua is not because of the limited information available to local people or diminishing land availability in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

"Most of [the concessions] in Papua are old permits for [land] which has not yet been planted. Because of this, it is also being evaluated based Presidential Instruction Number 8/2020 on a moratorium [on forest clearing]", he told CNN Indonesia on Wednesday.

Supriyono added that even if there is development of palm oil plantations in Papua, this is because of the need for economic growth in Papua which requires investment. "Not because of [land depreciation] in Sumatra and Kalimantan", he reiterated.

He also claimed that the expansion of palm oil plantations will be done in accordance with regulations. According to Supriyono, there is little possibility that companies will intentionally burn forests to clear land.

"There is little possibility that palm oil plantations will clear land by burning, because they will face very heavy legal sanctions", concluded Supriyono.

Environmental risks

Meanwhile on the issue of the environmental impact of expanding palm oil plantations, Rompas said that land clearing will have a detrimental effect on the rate of deforestation because it is conducted on a huge scale.

The independent conservation organisation World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) found that the environment in Sumatra and Kalimantan is at high risk as a consequence of the expansion of palm oil plantations.

This was spelled out in a WWF study in cooperation with the non-profit organisation Proforest titled "Palm Oil Sustainability: Trade and Key Players between Indonesia and China" (

WWF Indonesia's sustainable palm oil manager Joko Sarjito explained that the high environmental risks found in the study relates to natural habitats as well as local communities whose lives depend on the forests.

"With the presence of plantations which do not consider social and environmental aspects, this can have a long-term negative impact, both for environmental conservation and the protection of customary and local communities", Sarjito told CNN Indonesia.

Yet, he added, the forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan represent an ecosystem for many rare and endemic animals which are in fact threatened with extinction.

Forests in these areas are dominated by peatlands with high carbon reserves. The clearing of forests for plantations without careful planning can release large amounts of carbon and impact on global warming.

Bengkulu and West Sumatera Barat are areas with high environmental risks and threats to species density in Sumatra. The highest social risks meanwhile were found in Riau and Jambi provinces.

Meanwhile there are indications of growing risks to the environment and species concentration in the heart of Kalimantan.

No long ago, an investigation by Greenpeace International and Forensic Architecture found that a subsidiary of a South Korean company, Korindo Group, intentionally cleared land for palm oil concessions by burning.

The company has allegedly destroyed around 57,000 hectares of land in the province since 2001 – an area almost equivalent of the size of South Korea's capital Seoul.

Responding to this, the Environment and Forestry Ministry claimed that it has already sanctioned Korindo for violating regulations. Likewise with other corporations who have obtained land management permits from the government. (fey/nma)

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "Greenpeace: Lahan Menipis, Korporasi Sawit Merambah ke Papua".]