- The Indonesian government says it has no other option in dealing with illegal plantations than to legalize them under an amnesty program.
- Activists have lambasted the justification, saying it signals the state’s capitulation to environmental violators.
- They say the government has the option of taking legal action against the plantation operators, for which there’s already legal precedent.
- The amnesty program is set to run until the end of this year, with the aim of legalizing illegal plantations spanning an area the size of the Netherlands.
JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has justified a sweeping amnesty for millions of hectares of oil palm plantations established illegally in forest areas, saying there are so many of them that it simply has no other option than to legalize them.
Activists have criticized the reasoning, saying it shows yet again how the government continues to put corporate interests over environmental ones.
Luhut Pandjaitan, the chief minister in charge of investments, gave the justification on June 23, when he announced that the government would legalize all illegal plantations by the end of this year.
Under a 2013 law on forest degradation, activities like oil palm cultivation and mining are prohibited in forest areas, but that hasn’t stopped companies from clearing these areas to cultivate oil palms.
These illegal plantations today cover a combined area of 3.37 million hectares (8.33 million acres) — or an area the size of the Netherlands — and account for a significant portion of palm oil production in Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of the commodity.
A 2021 report by Greenpeace and technology consultancy TheTreeMap identified at least 600 plantation companies operating illegally inside forest areas. Yet these only accounted for half of the illegal plantations.
The amnesty scheme, introduced in 2020, gives the operators of these illegal plantations a grace period of three years to obtain the proper permits, including the official rezoning of their operational area to non-forest area, and to pay the requisite fines, allowing them to resume their operations.
The scheme has drawn criticism from activists and some lawmakers. Critics say it whitewashes the crime of setting up plantations inside areas zoned as forest, where deforestation, wildfires and land conflicts are rife. Lawmakers, who in 2020 passed the so-called omnibus law on job creation that introduced the amnesty scheme, have also questioned the rationale behind the scheme.
They argue illegal plantations are the result of an organized environmental crime that involves state and non-state actors, which leads to environmental problems like deforestation and forest fires. Therefore, they say, the government should be meting out harsh punishment to deter people from establishing illegal plantations, rather than accommodating them with an amnesty.
For his part, Luhut said the violation was a common one, committed not just by small farmers and companies, but also by government officials. However, he said legalizing these illegal plantations is the only way to deal with the issue.
“What else can we do? There’s no way for us to revoke them,” he said at a press conference in Jakarta. “It’s logical. We’re forced to whitewash [the violation]. We whitewash the [the plantations] but they have to then comply with the law, such as paying taxes.”
‘Bowing down’ to environmental violators
For Walhi, the country’s largest environmental NGO, the government’s justification signals a capitulation to environmental violators.
“The state is bowing down to companies and it’s ignoring environmental crimes done by the companies,” said Walhi forest and plantation campaign manager Uli Arta Siagian.
Achmad Surambo, executive director of palm oil industry watchdog group Sawit Watch, said it’s not true that legalizing the plantations is the only option the government has.
He cited a case in the northern part of Sumatra Island, where 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of illegal plantations were established inside protected forest area. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the plantations, owned by late businessman Darius Lungguk Sitorus, were illegal, and ordered the state to take over the concessions.
Achmad said this shows that the government can take legal action against illegal plantations, instead of whitewashing them.
“It looks like there’s no other choice … but if we look at other cases, it’s actually possible [to take legal action],” he said as quoted by Voice of America.
While the case in North Sumatra shows how the government could drag operators of illegal plantations into the court, there have been very few criminal charges brought by police and prosecutors, according to Greenpeace.
Instead, the government has opted for the easy option of pardoning these illegal plantations through various amnesty schemes in the past, Achmad said.
Between 2012 and 2020, the government rolled out three waves of increasingly lenient amnesties, with the latest being the one introduced under the omnibus law. These amnesties all give the violating companies a grace period to apply to have the land redesignated as non-forest area, or for a forest land swap.
The omnibus law extends the grace period from one year to three, and replaces criminal sanctions with administrative ones. This latter aspect “could set a bad precedent in the effort to improve palm oil management,” Achmad said.
“The problem is that the effort ignores the criminal process by just imposing administrative penalties for the [criminal] encroachment of illegal plantations into forest areas,” he said.
Uli of Walhi urged Luhut to disclose the identities of the parties who forced the government to amnesty the 3.37 million hectares of illegal plantations. She also called on the government to establish a mechanism to hold the operators of illegal plantations accountable.
“If the government is not brave enough to enforce the law on companies that have committed forestry crimes, then they should blacklist these firms,” she said. “[The government] should no longer give them permits and permit extensions.”
Speeding up the whitewash
The deadline for plantation operators to apply for the amnesty program is Nov. 2, 2023. As of early 2023, a total of 237,511 hectares (586,902 acres) of plantations have effectively been legalized under the program.
The government had also identified the owners of another 543,411 hectares (1.34 million acres) of illegal plantations, which include 616 palm oil companies, as of December 2022.
Eddy Martono Rustamadji, chair of the country’s main palm oil business association, GAPKI, said he hoped the government could speed up the legalization process.
To do this, and to improve the management of the palm oil industry in general, President Joko Widodo established a task force in April 2023. Luhut, who leads the task force, said it’s developing a dashboard to facilitate the legalization process.
With the dashboard, the task force will be able to monitor the presence of illegal plantations inside forest areas, he said.
To help the government’s work, Luhut said the task force is also calling on all businesses to report on the status of their plantations along with all the permits they have.
From July 3 to Aug. 3, companies can submit this information via the online government’s plantation database, called Siperibun. To verify the submitted data, the government will deploy drones and use satellite images for random checks, Luhut said.
“I hope with the establishment of this task force, all businesses will follow orders and give accurate data and be disciplined in reporting their conditions,” he said.
Banner image: An oil palm plantation adjacent to a forest in East Kalimantan. Image by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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