Opinion

Tesso Nilo, SBY’s climate
test case

Occupy, control and operate. This amounts to encroachment in Tesso Nilo. The encroachment relates to illegal palm oil trading derived from palm fruit grown inside the 167,000-hectare forest complex in Riau province, central Sumatra.

The complex consists of Tesso Nilo National Park and two major adjacent logging concessions.

A 2011 field survey by the World Wide Fund (WWF), an international conservation group, reported 52,000 hectares had been encroached, based on satellite images. More than 36,000 hectares, or 70 percent, have been converted to illegal oil palm plantations. Within the national park alone, 15,000 hectares have been converted to oil palm plantations.

According to Palming Off a National Park, a WWF report released June 2013, 524 individuals and 17 groups manage oil palm plantations inside the Tesso Nilo forest complex. Average plantation size per individual is 50 hectares.

The report identified 50 mills operating around the complex reaping 14.5 million tons of fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) of oil palm a year. It also named two major groups, Asian Agri and the Singapore-based Wilmar, involved in the trading of illegal oil palm fruit grown inside the forest complex.

Asian Agri had four mills and Wilmar three mills, they bought illegal oil palm up to April 2002.

The WWF research was conducted from February 2011 to April 2012. The report states Asian Agri subsidiary PT Inti Indo Sawit Subur allegedly purchased illegal FFBs grown inside the Tesso Nilo forest complex. In response, according to the report, Asian Agri stated it refused FFBs from suppliers that do not meet legal requirements.

Asian Agri asked for a written statement from its FFB suppliers that the FFB they supplied to Asian Agri mills were not harvested in areas without permits.

WWF has said it has a written statement from the suppliers to that effect. However, the process to verify the legal status of the origins of FFBs had, up until the publication of the WWF report, not been conducted by the government .

Meanwhile, Wilmar subsidiary PT Citra Riau Sarana also allegedly purchased illegal FFBs grown inside the Tesso Nilo forest complex. In response, Wilmar announced in November 2012 that it will not purchase illegally grown FFBs derived from forest encroachment areas.

WWF received a letter from Citra Riau Sarana stating the company would stop buying FFBs from plantations within Tesso Nilo National Park and illegal FFBs from any source and would make a firm and clear commitment with FFB sellers that FFBs sold to the company would be legal.

However, WWF has not verified the implementation of these commitments at the mill level.

Both Asian Agri and Wilmar have been asked by email if their Riau subsidiaries have independently verified the legal status of the origins of the FFBs. As of this writing, neither company has responded.

According to their websites, Asian Agri and Wilmar state their subsidiaries strive to become certified growers under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) rules that promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil. One rule is to uphold environmental best practices. One practice is transparency.

Tesso Nilo is one of a number of national parks in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua where oil palm plantations operate illegally.

Under the Forestry Law, all land designated as a forest estate cannot be used to grow agricultural goods such as oil palm. All land inside the Tesso Nilo forest complex is categorized as forest estate.

As the WWF investigation into Tesso Nilo is well documented, this national park has become a test case for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s climate change plan.

With his REDD+ initiative, SBY wants to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent and 41 percent with international cooperation in 2020 against a business-as-usual estimate of emissions.

Indigenous forest communities that grow palm fruit inside the Tesso Nilo forest complex have legitimate customary land tenure rights. The challenge SBY faces in Tesso Nilo is how to rein in illegal oil palm encroachments.

One practice is the slash-and-burn land clearing that results in carbon emissions and hazardous haze. Park managements under the authority of the Forestry Ministry has not succeeded in stopping it.

It was not surprising that Harrison Ford vented anger at Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan in an interview on Sept. 9 for the perceived lack of action by the ministry. The Hollywood actor shot footage at Tesso Nilo for a television series on climate change.

The president should authorize and oversee the forestry minister to establish an effective multiholder drive that involves local administrations, firms, communities and NGOs to end encroachments and bush fires.

Accountability on these efforts is in order, given that Indonesia is co-chair with the United Kingdom of the 60-member-nation Open Government Partnership that advocates transparency in governance.

One specific action the government can take is to ensure the independent auditing of the legal status of the oil palm trade.

Another is to commit to zero-burning, a declared policy intent. What deliverables come out of Tesso Nilo will reflect how earnest SBY is in putting in place a credible program in all forest zones to realize his 26/41 pledge. The president has until October 2014, when his term ends, to make good his word.

The writer teaches journalism at Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS), Jakarta.

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