By: Our Correspondent

Permits underpinning a multi-billion-dollar oil palm plantation project in Papua province allegedly were falsified, leading to the criminal clear-cutting of a vast area of rainforest 83 sq km in size, according to a report published this week in the conservation and environmental science news site Mongabay. The full report, titled “Revealed: Government Officials Say Permits for Mega-Plantation in Papua Were Falsified”, can be found here

The report, produced in collaboration with the environmental investigative journalism website The Gecko Project, alleges the land, which covers an area of remote jungle almost twice the size of the city of London, is being opened up by investors “whose identity is hidden behind anonymously owned companies.” 

Officials from Papua province’s investment agency told the investigators that permits that could only have been issued by their office were falsified. The former head of the agency has reported to the Indonesian government that his signature was forged on the documents. The allegation was said to have been formally raised within the government on at least three occasions and multiple ministries. But instead of reporting the allegation to law enforcement, officials struck an agreement allowing the developers to continue operating, provided they reapply for their permits.

Informed of the case, Laode Syarif, a deputy head of Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, said it merited an investigation. “If the signature of the investment agency chief was forged, that’s a crime,” he told the investigators.

In a separate allegation, the head of the investment office of Boven Digoel district, Papua province, has claimed that a key permit for a sawmill built to harvest timber from the project was also falsified. The allegation was made public last month by Pusaka, an Indonesian nonprofit that advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights.

In the wake of 2015 fires and haze that choked the entire Southeast Asian region, President Joko Widodo announced a freeze on new permits for oil palm plantations as of September 2018 and ordered a review of all existing oil palm licenses.

For more than a decade, the Indonesian government has aspired to transform the southern reaches of Papua from a region of pristine forests sparsely populated by indigenous peoples to a vast expanse of industrial farmland that would provide the nation with food, biofuels and export earnings, according to the report.

“That vision has largely foundered, leaving most of Papua’s forests untouched by industrial-scale activities,” the report said. “But over the years, speculators have sought and hoarded plantation permits from district politicians, in the hope that changing economic conditions would spark a development boom.”

The circumstances that led to both the forgery allegation and the agreement to paper over it have been pieced together by The Gecko Project and Mongabay through interviews with numerous government officials in Papua and Jakarta.

Jamal Tawurutubun, the head of licensing at the Papua investment agency, raised the allegations of forgery at a meeting in Jakarta in May this year, in front of senior staff from several government bodies, including two ministries. Also present were executives representing four of the seven companies, that are majority-owned by the anonymous investors.

According to Jamal’s account of events, the alleged forgery was first discovered no later than 2013, after his agency learned of the existence of the project by word of mouth.

Jamal was responsible for processing permits, but he had no record of the project in the agency database. When photocopies of the permits began to circulate within the provincial government, it emerged they bore the signature of Purnama, then the head of the Papua investment agency. (Purnama did not respond to requests for comment for this article).

Purnama himself raised the alarm in February 2013, in a letter to the governor of Papua and the Ministry of Agriculture stating that his signature had been forged. There is no evidence that any action was taken. Within months, one of seven companies — PT Megakarya Jaya Raya — began bulldozing the rainforest.

Jhoni Way, now the head of the Papua investment agency, said in an interview that the provincial and district governments had come to an agreement with Megakarya, and with a second company, PT Kartika Cipta Pratama, after discovering that it too had started clearing and planting land. These companies, they said, could keep operating, provided they redid the entire permit process from the beginning, starting at the district level.

The meeting in Jakarta, Jamal said, was part of a process to “find a solution, the best solution to make the investment work, because they have already spent money. We don’t want it arising again, the idea that Papua is not conducive to investment.”

Jhoni Way speculated that the falsification might have been abetted by someone inside the investment agency. But he insisted the matter had been resolved by the agreement with the companies. “The most important thing is they fix their permits,” he said.

In response to requests for comment, Megakarya and Kartika each wrote in a letter that their IUPs were “genuine and not falsified.” Both companies said they had “never been informed” of the allegation and that their activities were based on valid permits. They also claimed to have submitted regular progress reports to the relevant authorities, without any issues having been raised.

Only 3 percent of the total project area has been cleared so far. If it is fully developed, it could become the world’s biggest oil palm plantation. Other government bodies that are aware of the allegation have done little, if anything, to follow up on it.

Suratmin, a Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning official who attended the May meeting, told us the ministry had no role in the matter. Widodo Ekatjahjana, the director-general of legislation at the law ministry, declined to comment on the case, adding that any allegations of criminality should be reported to law enforcement. Agus Ahmad Kurniawan, a forestry ministry lawyer who advises officials on licensing, who was also present at the meeting, said nothing could be done unless the Papua investment agency officials provided more evidence to support the allegation.

“It’s the [provincial] government who can prove whether or not [the permits] were faked,” he said. “But as it stands, they haven’t followed up.”

Djukmarian, the head of the Boven Digoel district investment office, said he was content for the project to go ahead on the grounds that it was in line with the local zoning plan and that local communities were supportive of it. “Look, the people who say [the permits were] faked are from the province,” he wrote in a text message. “So why doesn’t the province bring it into the realm of law?”

Jamal and Jhoni Way, however, took the view that the agreement with the companies had put the matter to rest.

“It’s done,” Jamal said.

The claim that the IUPs were falsified is not the only allegation of impropriety that has been levelled against the Tanah Merah project.

A cross-border investigation published in November 2018 by The Gecko Project, Mongabay, news portal Malaysiakini and Tempo magazine revealed a litany of problems in the way the rights to the concessions had been obtained and traded.

Yusak Yaluwo, the district chief, had granted Menara the rights to more land than a single firm is allowed to control in Papua, blowing through the legal limit of 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles). In April 2010, soon after Menara began the licensing process, Yusak was arrested on unrelated corruption charges. But the investigation found that he continued to sign documents shepherding the project through after he was convicted, while languishing in a prison cell.

The Menara Group used the names of front shareholders on company documents, including those of Chairul’s driver and a low-paid debt collector. Menara then sold two of the companies, to Tadmax, via a pair of Singapore-based shell companies that also had front shareholders, obscuring the recipients of the $80 million that flowed offshore as rights to the project changed hands.

Villagers have complained that basic information about the project, including its boundaries and scale, was withheld from them. Menara’s representatives were accompanied by police officers and soldiers during their interactions with local communities. On one occasion an Auyu man was reportedly beaten up by a police officer in a meeting about the project at a local schoolhouse.

NGOs have been unable to obtain copies of the environmental impact assessments the companies were required to carry out as part of the permit process. “It’s like there’s a mafia hiding them,” Ronny Tethool, who until recently ran the WWF office in southern Papua, told us in 2017 after trying and failing to obtain the assessments.

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