By: Mongabay and The Gecko Project

“He thought it was normal, that nothing would come of it,” Nordin told us at the Palangkaraya office of his NGO, Save Our Borneo. “He just didn’t want to take any responsibility for it.”

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Nordin Abah

Vino worked as a building contractor, obtaining jobs from Darwan’s administration, and was a nephew of Darwan’s wife. The name of his boss, a confidante of Darwan’s from his days in a trade association, also appeared in company documents.

“You’re going to go to jail Vino, if this thing blows up,” Nordin recalled telling him. “They made me do it, Din.” Vino replied. “I was tricked.”

Where Marianto was a political insider, a mover and shaker in the logging game who soured on the man he once considered an ally, Nordin was a campaigner who hounded the palm oil companies ravaging Seruyan. He also had strong connections to and within the district. His uncle had served as the regional secretary, the highest position in its civil service. On Darwan’s trail, he set about tapping his own relatives in the bureaucracy for leads. He had managed to uncover most of the names involved, noting like Marianto that many of the addresses to which the companies were registered were either duds or owned by the bupati and his family.

Nordin observed that a plantation company would need to operate a factory to mill the fruit, and Vino “couldn’t even run a tofu factory.” He was adamant that other people had been used in the same way. “You might be a teacher, you might be a journalist, you might be a contractor  —  there’s no way someone like that can get a permit for a plantation,” Nordin explained. “You don’t know how to develop an oil palm company. And you don’t have the money. It’s just for selling. The story is, I use your name to make a permit to sell to someone else.”

The name Ambrin M Yusuf appeared as director of one of the companies. Nordin identified him as a confidante of Darwan from their time in the East Kotawaringin builders association. We tracked him down to his house in Kuala Pembuang, where he had recently returned after serving a jail term for his role as a bag man delivering cash in a local bribery scandal.

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Ambrin M Yusuf

He admitted to being a political ally of Darwan, and said that intermediaries had asked him to put his name to the company. But he claimed, implausibly, that he had turned them down, and that the person named in the documents was another man with the same name. He nevertheless admitted that it was “normal” for a bupati to give permits to a family member.

Yusuf and Vino’s stories suggested that cronies were being used as fronts, potentially to keep someone else’s name  —  the true beneficiary  —  off company documents. Nordin and Marianto believed that other people whose names appeared were more complicit. They both pointed to a man named Khaeruddin Hamdat as a central figure.

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Khaeruddin Hamdat alias Daeng

Khaeruddin appeared as director of three of the companies, though never a shareholder. Marianto, Nordin and others identified him as Darwan’s “adjutant.” It is a term commonly used in Indonesia for the person who serves variously as the advisor, right-hand man and fixer for important politicians. Known as Daeng, an affectionate term for a man from his home island of Sulawesi, Khaeruddin was only in his mid-30s by the time the companies were formed. Nordin described him variously as the “boss in Jakarta” and Darwan’s gatekeeper, meeting with palm oil executives in a posh hotel in the capital. (Khaeruddin declined to comment for this article.)

“Because Darwan has to protect himself,” Nordin said. “No way he uses his own name to cut a deal.”

Most of those involved in the scheme proved to be elusive or declined to comment when they got a sense of what we were asking questions about. But one of the few people we knew for sure where to find was Hamidhan Ijuh Biring. He had been jailed for yet another corruption scandal, and we tracked him down to a prison on a main boulevard in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital.

Hamidhan’s name appeared as a director and shareholder of one of the 18 companies. He was also married to Darwan’s niece. He told us that he had set up the company and received a license from Darwan, but lacked the capital to develop a plantation. Darwan encouraged him to sell the company to a political ally in Jakarta who also served as director of an existing plantation company in the district. After the deal went through, Hamidhan received one portion of the payment but the second, he later discovered, went directly to Darwan. “It turns out Darwan was inside, telling him, ‘No need to pay Hamidhan’,” he said bitterly.

Before his relationship with Darwan soured, Hamidhan was an insider, campaigning with him ahead of his 2008 reelection bid. He corroborated Nordin and Marianto’s claim that Khaeruddin Hamdat served as Darwan’s adjutant. He said that whenever he met the bupati, Khaeruddin was there with him.

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The sequence of events after the shell companies were formed tells us two things. Firstly, that the intent was never for the founders to develop the plantations themselves. Between December 2004 and May 2005, Darwan gave 16 of the companies permits for plantations. By the end of 2005, at least nine of them had been sold on to major palm oil firms for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems implausible that a series of interconnected people, in many cases family members, would concurrently form companies only to decide that they lacked the capacity to run

Secondly, it tells us there was a strong degree of coordination in the ways they were both formed and sold. Most of the companies were established within a small window of time, many of them just days apart. Several were also sold within a small period of time some months later.

Eight of the shell companies were bought by the Kuoks in late 2005. Darwan’s family and cronies would eventually derive just under a million dollars from the deals with the Malaysian billionaires. In the scheme of things, it was a pittance, a fraction of what the Kuoks would earn from the plantations if they were developed. But in these deals, the shareholders linked to Darwan also kept a 5 percent stake in each of the companies, which could make each of them multimillionaires in their own right.

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The Kuok Group’s PPB Oil Palms announces a deal to buy 95 percent of a company owned by Darwan Ali’s brothers and a Seruyan politician, in October 2005. The company had been incorporated nine months earlier. Source: Malaysian stock exchange.

The evidence Nordin obtained of the connection between Darwan’s family and the companies sold to the Kuoks was first outed in an international NGO’s report, in June 2007. It was just two weeks before two of the Kuok family companies were merged under the name Wilmar International, forming what is now possibly the world’s largest palm oil firm.