Korean palm oil firm accused of illegal forest burning in Indonesia
A Korean palm oil company has been dropped by buyers after footage emerged that allegedly shows the illegal burning of vast tracts of tropical forest on lands it holds concessions for in Indonesia.
Some of the world’s biggest palm oil trading producers including Wilmar, Musim Mas and IOI have stopped using palm oil sourced from Korindo, much of which is destined to meet European demand.
Korindo’s alleged deforestation of pristine woodland in Papua province also threatens to destroy the last sanctuary of several birds of paradise and the tree kangaroo, according to a report by a new environmental alliance called Mighty.
The group has collected evidence from drones, remote sensors, GPS satellites, and videographers and photographers on the ground, which it says proves that Korindo has flouted Indonesia’s no-burning laws and violated responsible sourcing requirements.
Bustar Maitar, Mighty’s campaign director in Papua, told the Guardian: “Korindo is clear-cutting forests and then starting fires to clear the land of remaining biomass. That is forbidden by Indonesia’s regulations but during last year’s forest fires, most of the blazes in the Papua region happened in Korindo’s concessions.”
“There are a lot of animal species and flora here that haven’t even been discovered yet,” Maitar added. “If these kinds of land clearing activities continue, they may never be.”
But Koh Gyeong Min, Korindo’s head of sustainability, denied that the firm had been responsible for any illegal forest burning. “It is not true actually,” he said. “We followed all of the Indonesian regulations and acquired all the proper licences from the government for all areas of operation within our group.”
“I also would like to ask: do the local NGOs or residents have any evidence about our company that they have brought to the Indonesian government or the local courts? As far as I know there have been no cases of that.”
The allegations come as south-east Asia’s 2016 burning season is just beginning. On 30 August, the Indonesian government warned that haze from fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan could reach Malaysia and Singapore in the days ahead.
More than 3,000 hotspots have been detected in the Indonesian archipelago in the last month, with maps released by Greenpeace of Riau and West Kalimantanshowing that many are occurring on industrial plantation concessions in the same areas that burned last year.
Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaigner said: “Companies that refuse to take steps to prevent fires have not just ash, but blood on their hands.”
Wildfires in Indonesia’s tropical forests last year are thought likely to have contributed to the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people, and to have emitted more CO2 than the whole of the UK that year.
Korindo is active in Indonesia’s north Malaku region as well as Papua, holding around 620 square miles of forest concessions in total. The company, whosepromotional video calls on viewers to “make the Earth green”, has already cleared around 193 square miles of forest.
Maitar said that Korindo had not responded to letters sent by the new alliance, and that the new report was aimed at putting pressure on the Indonesian government.
Several major buyers of Korindo’s palm oil acted to cut the firm out of their supply chains after hearing of the allegations.
A spokeswoman for Musim Mas told the Guardian that it wanted to see Korindo engage with civil society groups and adopt a “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” (NDPE) policy. “During this period we will continue to stop buying the palm oil temporarily and monitor Korindo’s progress,” she said.
NDPEs have become a palm oil industry standard in south-east Asia but the Mighty campaign argues that they are not working. Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty’s US campaign director, said that Korindo had been able to deforest 113 square miles of land since 2013, despite clearly visible satellite evidence of 894 hotspots in that period.
“This investigation shows the true face of the palm oil industry in Indonesia even after No Deforestation policies,” Hurowitz said. “The current, mostly confidential company-by-company system is inadequate. We urgently need a transparent, systematic approach, as well as further action by government and prosecutors.”
One of Malaysia’s largest palm oil companies, IOI – which was itself suspended from a sustainability scheme for not doing enough to prevent deforestation - said that its third party suppliers had also “decided to temporarily stop sourcing from Korindo” after hearing the allegations.
The palm oil giant Wilmar told the Guardian that it too had contacted Korindo after a heads up about the new evidence. “Due to a lack of progress from the supplier, and in view of the serious allegations, Wilmar has ceased procuring from Korindo with effect from June 2016,” a spokeswoman said.
None of the companies would reveal how much money they spent on ensuring that third-party palm oil suppliers did not cause environmental damage.
Gyeong Min said that after a demand from Wilmar earlier this year, Korindo began a “high-carbon stock assessment” which would be published later this month. “We also announced a temporary moratorium for our remaining plantation area,” he said.
Last month, a Korindo subsidiary called PT Tunas Sawa Erma declared a three-month suspension of new forest clearings across 25,000 hectares of territory, while it developed a NDPE policy.
But Mighty says that the moratorium did not extend to all Korindo operations. “A couple of months ago we visited their concessions and the land clearing was still happening,” Maitar said. “In our experience with other companies, all activities involving the cutting down of forests should be stopped, while they are doing these sorts of assessments.”