Consumers Help Change Notorious Palm Oil Industry

September 4, 2016

apua, Indonesia, has the country’s largest area of previously untouched rainforest. More than 300 indigenous tribes live there, including some that have had little contact with global civilization. But the number of palm oil plantations in Papua has grown more than fourfold in the past decade, to the detriment of forest and people.

An environmental group called Mighty released an investigation into one of Papua’s palm oil producers, the Korean-owned company Korindo, on Sept. 1. The allegations against Korindo have all the hallmarks of the rogue palm oil industry: It has flouted environmental and human rights standards—even illegally burning large swaths of rainforest—and gotten away with it largely due to government corruption.

Yet two of Korindo’s major customers stopped buying from it as a result of the investigation, a hopeful sign of change in the industry.

Palm oil is estimated to be found in about half of all packaged items in supermarkets.

Palm oil is part of our daily lives. It is estimated to be found in about half of all packaged items in supermarkets, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It is in margarines, cereals, shampoos, and more. And the use of palm oil is expected to double by 2020, due to an increasing world population and growing affluence in some regions, leading to more consumption of manufactured goods containing the oil.

Industry Problems

From 2013 to 2015, about 900 hot spots were recorded within Korindo’s concession boundaries, according to Mighty. With satellite data, aerial photographs, and on-the-ground investigations, Mighty found “systematic and abundant use of fire during its land clearing processes.”

This is illegal. Fires have devastated Indonesia, destroying farmers’ crops, creating a deadly haze of smoke, not to mention the threat to diverse wildlife in the rainforest. Korindo’s concessions account for only 0.7 percent of the 122,568 fires detected in the country in 2015. The palm oil industry in general is a rampant offender.

Korindo has operated in Indonesia since 1993, clearing a total of more than 50,000 hectares. (That’s almost the size of Seoul, South Korea, to put it in perspective.) Since 2013 alone, it has cleared an area of approximately 30,000 hectares, including 12,000 hectares of primary forest.

Mighty’s report states: “Korindo’s management likely believes the chance of being held accountable for open burning through legal sanction or as a result of public opinion to be small. Local indigenous groups have little access to media for reporting illegal practices, and Korindo is well connected with the local armed forces.”

Korindo did not reply to inquiries from Epoch Times as of press time.

The company did get a slap on the wrist in 2015. One of its pulpwood concessions received a six-month suspension for burning. But the suspension was cut short, and the government allowed it to resume operations after three months.

Government Looks the Other Way

The Indonesian National Human Rights Commission wrote in a March 2016 press release about government corruption aggravating disputes between indigenous people and companies like Korindo: “The problem becomes more complicated when government officials, including police, are involved in the conflict and fail to remain neutral in most cases. … Various conflicts involving indigenous territories that are widespread and increasingly complicated can not be resolved by existing ministries or state institutions because of conflict of interests.”

Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 on “decades-long restrictions not only on foreign reporters, but also on U.N. officials, representatives of international aid groups, and others seeking to work in Papua.”

Mighty alleges that Korindo has misled local tribes into signing agreements to give up their forest land and that it has generally treated locals poorly.

A 2008 report by the nongovernmental organization Commission of the Churches on International Affairs told a similar story: “Conflicts between the company [Korindo] and Papuan customary landowners are widespread, denying the latter one access and compensation, increasing mistrust between clans over land boundaries and within clans over compensation sharing.

Less than 10 percent of the palm oil employees in Papua are from the local population.

“Additional side-effects are the strong military and police presence. Villagers, visitors, and local politicians and officials are closely monitored and constantly harassed and intimidated.”

While Korindo employs about 20,000 people in Indonesia, the Commission’s report noted that less than 10 percent of the palm oil employees in Papua are from the local population.

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