Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

An Indonesian court has awarded a landmark victory for indigenous rights in a case brought by West Papua activists against several palm oil companies.

The Jayapura Administrative Court in West Papua province on Tuesday ruled in favor of a district chief who withdrew permits that allowed more than a dozen palm oil companies to operate in indigenous forest areas and turn them into plantations.

Johny Kamuru, head of Sorong Regency, canceled the permits after indigenous groups said they had not agreed to the conversion of their ancestral lands into palm oil concessions and a review by the provincial government recommended that it be revoked in February 2021 .

Three of the companies affected have taken legal action against Kamaru, including PT Papua Lestari Abadi and PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo, whose bid to have their permits recovered was rejected by the court.

Kamuru was also sued by PT Inti Kebun Lestari in a separate, ongoing case.

Pursuant to the authorization granted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2018, review of palm oil permit was supposed to be undertaken by the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. None of the ministries in Sorong publicly commented on the matter.

In 2019, Jokowi issued a moratorium on the development of new palm oil estates as part of an effort to end deforestation in the country. The moratorium expired in September this year and was replaced by Indonesia’s controversial job creation law.

The law allows companies that are operating illegally to apply for permits retrospectively within three years and escape legal sanctions if they do so.

The land involved in the dispute belongs to the Moi people, one of more than 250 ethnic groups in Papua.

A moratorium on new palm oil estates expired in September this year [File: Al Jazeera]

After the verdict, Moi lawyers and the head of the regional people’s representative council in Sorong celebrated in front of the local district office.

Ambrosisus Klagilit, advocacy coordinator for the Sorong Division of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), spoke to Al Jazeera after the verdict, saying he was “grateful” for the legal victory.

“This ruling is important for our indigenous people because we believe that it is a just decision that ensures our future and our countries. We now feel protected, ”he said.

The total land covered by the three companies covers about 90,031 acres (222,471 acres), according to Greenpeace Indonesia – an area larger than New York City.

In October, Greenpeace Indonesia has released a report in collaboration with environmental mapping specialists TheTreeMap who found one-fifth of the country’s oil palm plantations were in areas where mining is illegal, including indigenous lands, national parks, watersheds and conservation areas designated as “national forest estates”.

Since 2000, nearly one million hectares of forest land (2,471,054 acres) have been released for plantations in Papua province, according to Greenpeace, with “systematic violations of permit regulations” a common occurrence.

‘Positive breakthrough’

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, bringing in $ 5.7 billion or 11 percent of the country’s annual exports. The resource is used in a a lot of products, from soap to chocolate.

Indonesia exported 37.3 million tons of palm oil in 2020, representing 55 percent of the global palm oil market, according to the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAKI).

Palm oil exports rose 32 percent in July 2021 compared to the previous month to $ 2.8 billion, according to the association.

Syahrul Fitra, a campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, told Al Jazeera the ruling was a major victory for indigenous rights and environmental protection.

“Greenpeace Indonesia has found that the management of the palm oil industry is plagued by problems such as intrusion into indigenous lands, overlap with the national forest estate and other protected areas, procedural consent and failure to allow compliance,” Fitra said.

“The head of the Sorong district acted correctly to rectify these errors when he took the concrete step of canceling a number of oil palm plantation permits, based on a thorough review by the West Papua provincial government in collaboration with the Corruption Extinction Commission (CPC). ”

Greenpeace Indonesia said it welcomed the ruling and hoped it would encourage other districts and provinces as well as the national government to support permit review and revocation as needed.

Wirya Supriyadi, Advocate Coordinator of the Papua Office of the Indonesian Environment Forum (WALHI), described the ruling as “a positive breakthrough” and a “victory” for the Moi peoples.

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