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Leon Kaye headshot

Deforestation from Palm Oil Production Continues to Spread in Indonesia

By Leon Kaye

As the demand for palm oil surges worldwide, so too have a bevy of environmental problems and human rights violations in Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s two largest producers of this lucrative crop.

In Indonesia, the industry’s abuses within Sumatra and Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo are well documented. And the environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth says deforestation and the denial of human rights are accelerating on Indonesian Papua in the country’s remote eastern region.

According to a study co-written by Mighty, the consultancy Aidenvironment and the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, the quest to plant more palm oil plantations is wreaking havoc across what is often described as Southeast Asia’s last frontier. And the culprit, South Korean-owned logging and palm oil giant Korindo, continues to burn down virgin rainforests despite its 2-year-old deforestation pledge.

Meanwhile, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the global organization tasked with advancing the production of more responsible palm oil, remains either unable or unwilling to halt the environmental degradation in one of the world’s most pristine and isolated regions.

Activists from Mighty, a partnership between the Center for International Policy and Waxman Strategies, say they have been documenting evidence, including satellite photos of West Papua province, since 2013. They compiled the results of this investigation and shared it with Korindo’s largest customers, including Wilmar, Muslim Mas, ADM and the controversial IOI Group, which saw its RSPO membership suspended earlier this year.

Those companies in turn claim to have suspended their purchases of palm oil from Korindo. But in the meantime, Mighty claims Korindo is responsible for 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of deforestation and almost 900 fires throughout Indonesian Papua. And while palm oil is found in about half of the world’s processed foods or consumer packaged goods, Mighty says much of Korindo’s palm oil is being sold to European companies that produce biofuels in order to meet the European Union’s renewable fuel mandates.

The result is a huge threat to Indonesian Papua’s ecosystem, which is home to the country’s largest intact forests and half of its native plant and wildlife species. Endangered animals such as the tree kangaroo and the cassowary, a large, flightless bird, are hence under siege.

Also endangered is the way of life for many of the local people. Aidenvironment and Mighty say Korindo repeatedly violated community rights. Local residents in Indonesia have the agreed-upon right to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people (FPIC), as recognized by the United Nations and increasingly by international law experts. But Korindo failed to recognize these people’s rights, and one of the company’s subsidiaries now has the notorious reputation of occupying forests and farmland on which families have lived for centuries.

These ongoing problems were exacerbated by Korindo’s investments in logging, which Greenpeace, almost a decade ago, said was behind the destruction of some of the last remaining rainforests in Indonesia. The felling of trees, often illegally, has exacted an even larger environmental and social impact on people who claim they have no say in how the company conducts itself in their communities.

Korindo is yet another company within the global palm oil supply chain that projects an environmentally and socially responsible image, but in reality conducts itself in a starkly different manner. The industry continues to fail in policing itself. This will only amplify the call of environmental groups as they urge consumers, companies and governments to take bolder action before damage to people and the planet becomes irreparable.

Image credit: Mighty/Yerimia Leon

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye