Primary rainforest in Boven Digoel
This analysis is part of the Indonesia for Sale series. See the full investigations, films and more here.
On 28 November 2018, Earthsight's The Gecko Project, Mongabay, Tempo and
Malaysiakini published an investigation into the story behind the
Tanah Merah project, a giant oil palm plantation under development in Papua,
The project poses a greater threat to Indonesia’s forests
than any other
The project spans 2,800 square kilometres, nearly twice the
size of Greater London. It sits at the heart of the largest tract of virgin
forest remaining in Asia. To date, only around 2 percent of the area has been
cleared. If the project is completed, it will produce as much greenhouse gas
emissions as Belgium does by burning fossil fuels in a single year.
The ownership of the project is shrouded in secrecy
The investors behind the project have employed all the tools
of corporate secrecy to hide their identities: shell companies with front
addresses, fake and proxy shareholders, and offshore secrecy jurisdictions.
Today the main shareholders in the companies operating remain hidden behind
The ultimate owners of four of the seven companies holding permits within the Tanah Merah project are hidden behind anonymous companies in the United Arab Emirates
Permits for the project were issued from a prison cell
The politician who headed the district at the time of the
project’s inception was arrested on unrelated corruption charges at a critical
stage of the permit process. We discovered he had signed key documents relating
to the project from his prison cell on the island of Java, thousands of
kilometres away from Papua.
Key permits have been hidden from public scrutiny, in
Chairul Anhar, the businessman who was central to the Tanah
Merah project, also tried to develop a series of vast sugar plantations on a
remote string of islands elsewhere in Indonesia. That project was cancelled
after illegalities in the permit process were exposed. It has proved impossible
to establish whether the same kinds of breaches occurred with the Tanah Merah
project, because the necessary documents — the environmental impact assessments
(EIAs) — have proved stubbornly elusive. Even local and provincial government
agencies with a role in the process claim not to have seen the EIAs. Sources
expressed the view that the EIAs are being deliberately, and illegally,
withheld from the public.
The activist Franky Samperante, who works with communities in Boven Digoel, has tried and failed to obtain key permits from numerous government agencies
The project involves one of the world’s most notorious tropical logging firms
The Malaysian logging firm Shin Yang is a major shareholder in the sawmill under construction. Shin Yang has been at the centre of repeated environmental and human rights scandals in Malaysian Borneo.
The sawmill under construction on the banks of the Digul River. The notorious logging firm Shin Yang is a major shareholder in the company constructing the mill
The project falls on the land of indigenous people, whose
rights have been roundly ignored
The rainforest slated for destruction falls on the ancestral
lands of the indigenous Auyu people. The Auyu are heavily dependent on the
rainforest for their livelihoods. Villagers living under the shadow of the
project say they were pressured to sign documents relating to the project that
they did not understand. They told us they were prevented from voicing their
opposition to the project due to the oppressive presence of police and
soldiers. They told of how one man was “beaten half to death” by a police officer
at a meeting held to discuss the project. None of the benefits that were
promised to them have materialised.
Auyu children living under the shadow of the Tanah Merah project
The project is a test case for whether Indonesia will be
able to halt deforestation, with global implications
Large-scale palm plantations have been one of the biggest
drivers of deforestation in Indonesia over the last decade. Deforestation, in
turn, has been a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia.
Recognising this, earlier this year Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced
a freeze on new permits. But the moratorium won’t halt the destruction, because
there are many millions of hectares of forest still earmarked for clearance
under existing palm permits — those underpinning the Tanah Merah project being
the largest example.
However, the president’s order also mandated a review of all
existing licenses. Vast tracts of forest could still be saved if cause was
found to revoke them. A similar program has resulted in the revocation of
thousands of mining permits, and a meaningful review of existing palm permits
is essential if Indonesia is to meet its international climate commitments and
halt forest loss. Given the globally significant volume of greenhouse gas
emissions from deforestation in Indonesia, the implications extend far beyond
the country’s borders.
This article originally stated that the Malaysian logging firm Rimbunan Hijau was involved in the project through a minor stake in one of the plantation companies holding land in Boven Digoel. The minor shareholder is a company named PT Rimbunan Hijau Plantations Indonesia. However, there is no evidence that the Malaysian logging conglomerate of the same name is connected to it.