Deforestation in Halmahera North Maluku Paves Way for Palm Oil Industry

Some of the oil palm plantations owned by PT Gelora Mandiri Pembangunan (GMM) owned by Korindo. (Hairil Hiar)

Yani Mukmat was crying. The 59-year-old woman could not contain her sadness as she could only accept her fate and look at the forest that has now become a palm oil plantation.

The forests, that provide the livelihood for people and the habitat of a variety of species on Halmahera island, is now gone. Yani is one of the residents of Gane Dalam village whose livelihood have dependent on that forest since the 1980s.

The life of this mother of three begun to change after PT Gelora Mandiri Membangun (GMM) obtained a permit from the government and began to log the forest in 2012. The former forest was then planted with oil palms.

PT GMM is a subsidiary of the Korindo Group, a South Korean conglomerate in timber and palm oil headed by Eun-Ho Seung, which also has operations in Papua and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

Yani had begun to cultivate coconut in the forest in Gane together with her husband when she was 20. The harvested coconuts were then processed into Kopra, sun-dried up coconut flesh, to meet their daily need and to save for the future of their children and grandchildren. Yani and her husband cultivated an area of about two hectares.

“We planted that land area with coconuts. The rest, with nutmeg,” said Yani.

But in 2012, PT GMM cleared the forest, based on decree of the Forestry Minister Number SK.22/Menhut-II/2009 of January 29, 2009 on the release of production forest area for conversion covering 11,003.90 hectares.

The news that her land and that of other Gane villagers have been designated as part of the concession area awarded to PT GMM, immediately gave Yani great concerns. That plot of land was her main sources of livelihood and economy.

Yani said that a similar fate not only affected other villagers in Gane Dalam but also residents of other villages in the neighboring sub-districts of Southern West Gane and Southern East Gane, all located in an isolated area in South Halmahera, in the Eastern Indonesian province of North Moluccas.

She recounted that it was in 2014, when she was working her field, she suddenly saw a unit of heavy machinery entering her plot and felling trees. “I asked, who asked you to do the eviction? and the machinery operator said, it was at the instruction of the company,” she said.

At the time, she said she was not yet aware that her plot of land was designated to be within the concession of PT GMM. She reported the incident to the Gane Dalem village administration, but no one sided with her. PT GMM later even reported Yani to the Southern West Gane sub-district police on charge of obstructing the company’s activity of clearing the land.

Her effort to defend her land and plantation finally ended in 2016. She and her husband gave up in the face of continuous threats. “Even a relative who was in support of the company’s presence, threatened to kill us. That was my one elder brother. He is now dead,” Yani said.

Besides having to face threats, Yani’s land plot that bordered with the palm oil plantation became increasingly smaller as were the land plot belonging to other villagers in the same area.

“I was then forced to sell (the land) to the company for Rp15 million per hectare. The price was set by the company,” Yani added.

The massive felling of the forest in Gane Dalam village also brought new pests that ate up the crops of farmers in the area. It also resulted in climate change there.

Yani said that never before, since she lived from her plantation and the forest in Gane, had she seen such a plague of beetles attacking local crops. Large snakes that previously very seldom could be seen, now also began to appear in the village.

Yani, the 59-year ld villager of Gane Dalam whose land is part of the pal oil concession owned by PT GMM. (Hairil Hiar)
Yani, the 59-year ld villager of Gane Dalam whose land is part of the pal oil concession owned by PT GMM. (Hairil Hiar)

Yance Matius, a resident of neighboring Yamli village, said that the presence of the palm oil company in Gane and the ensuing destruction of forest was badly affecting the crops of farmers in the area. “The price of kopra was already nothing, in came oil palm to disturb us, and pests increased in number. Now, five coconut trees have died. Those have belonged to me since 2017,” lamented Yance.

The man who had 12 children to care for, said that his coconut plantation, just some 300 meters from the new oil palm plantation, was threatened by swarms of beetles. He was worried that the pest would only aggravate the sufferings of his family which relies entirely on their plantation of coconut and nutmeg.

“My field was already there before the oil palm company came. The yields are to meet the need for my wife and children and to pay for my children’s school fees,” Yance said.

“Since the oil palms are here, the production of my coconut trees has gone down drastically,” he added.

The struggle to defend crops and field was also experienced by Salmin, a farmer from Gane village who joined the movement against the oil palm company in Gane Dalam.

A total of 42 families who own crops and plantation in the area are said to have joined the movement to oppose PT GMM. But another 412 families in the areas are in support of the presence of PT GMM.

Salmin said that from among the 42 families opposing the company, some of its members were arrested by the police on the charge of obstructing the operation of the company in April 2015, some of the villagers who oppose the company, blocked attempt by the company to clear the land of Sanusi, also a relative of Yani. Police arrested them and took them to neighboring Bacan island for trial.

The Labuha state court in South Halmahera finally acquitted them of the charge in September that year.

The Disappearing Forests

The conversion of forests into oil palm plantations belonging to Korindo is not only affecting Gane Dalam. The total land converted, 11,003.90 hectares straddles or touches eight other villages — Yamli, Gane Luar, Sawat, Sekli, Jibubu, Awis and Pasipalele — and three sub-districts — Southern East Gane, Southern West Gane and Joronga Islands.

South Halmahera is an underdeveloped area and the only access so far is through the sea. There are also yet no land routes linking villages, which all lay along the coast, and sub-district towns. its road network consists of just a few kilometers of road tracing build by PT GMM to access the concessions from Gane Dalam and Gane Luar.

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What remains from the forests in Gane Dalam are merely a mangrove forest on the coast and forest in Tanjung Rotan, and even that is currently under threat of disappearing as Korindo may use the land to build its palm oil mill.

Data from Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) released on March 2018 showed that there was only one single permit issued for a palm oil plantation and that was awarded to PT GMM which has already began operation on 10,500 hectares of land. FWI also noted that in 2013, the deforestation rate for natural forest in that oil palm plantation concession stood at 905 hectares per year. It had become 3,000 hectares per year by 2016.

Meanwhile, data from the North Moluccas Chapter of the Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) related to the license to make use of timber (IPK) issued to PT GMM numbered four between 2011 and the licenses covered an area of about 14,527.16 hectares. If the area covered by the IPKs are compared to the permit for the release of forest areas issued by the Forestry Ministry on January 29, 2009, there is an expansion of 3,523.26 hectares.

South Halmahera has total surface of 40,263.72 square kilometers, of which land account for 8,779.32 square or 22 percent of the total and the rest is marine territory at 31,484.40 square kilometers, or 78 percent. Seven of South Halmahera district’s 30 sub-districts are in the Gane area of Halmahera island (BPS 2017).

Within the Gane forest where logging operations and oil palm planting by PT GMM is taking place, there are fields belonging to local residents and also a broad range of flora and fauna. Among the endemic species living in that forests are various crooked beak birds such as the White Parrot and Macaw.

In clearing the land for its oil palm plantation PT GMM logged the forest to produce high-value plywood. Once the timber had been cleared were the oil palm planted. This has reduced the habitat of various flora and fauna species and also threatened their existence.

The head of the North Moluccas Forestry Office, H M Sukur Lila, said that the difference in land surface between those contained in the IPKs and in the ministerial license that were processed into certificates through PT Equality Indonesia was because there was a double registration of land plot in the SLVK realization assessment list, namely concerning registry number 25 and 26 under the name of PT GMMM, on December 17, 2015.

Sukur said that if the double registration is rectified then the total surface of land covered in the IPKs for PT GMM would stand at 9,337.16 hectares. On the official website of PT Equality Indonesia, however, the surface was put at 13,606 hectares. This would imply 2,602.10 hectares more, even after the double registration had been rectified.

He attributed the disappearance of natural forests on Halmahera island to the issuance of licenses for the usage of forest timber products in natural forests and permits for the release of land in forest areas. “The changes in the land cover, including the diminishing surface of natural forests, are the logical consequences of land clearing,” Sukur said.

The licenses to clear forests areas, he said, were issued by the central government, in this case by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs 9KLHK).  And since 2016, there were no longer such licenses issued to PT GMM. “So, we (the forestry office) were only given the authority to issue IPKs for areas that have already been released by the minister but did not yet have HGUs (Land Operational Usage Rights). The issuance of the IPKs are in line with the regulation of the Forestry Minister Number P.62/Menhut-II/2015 on the license for the usage of timber,” Sukur said.

Concerning the changes in the forest ecosystem because of the disappearing ecosystem in Gane forest, Sukur referred to environmental documents that were submitted by the company. “These include the AMDAL (Environmental Impact Analysis) of PT GMM that was already validated,” he added.

The change t in the ecosystem took place at the Gane forest after land clearing was conducted by PT GMM and they included the filling of a number of river tributaries. The changes also lead to the swarm of beetles that have become pests and attacked the coconut trees that had so far provided the economical livelihood of local residents.

Faisal Ratuela, an activist and observer of environmental affairs in North Moluccas, said that the appearance of the beetles are suspected to be because of the deforestation and the presence of the mono-culture plantation industry.

“The clearing of natural forest for oil palm plantations has resulted in the beetle pest to attack the crops of local residents. This condition needs to be seriously addressed by the government of South Halmahera district because the majority of the population here depends on copra as their main source of revenues. Also, almost all household in the area have fields planted with monthly crops and coconut plantations,” Faisal said.

The Home of Wallacea Comes Under Threat

Halmahera Island is also known as part of the Wallacea bio-geographical region that is rich in endemic flora and fauna species. Nutmeg, coconut and cloves are among the endemic species. Wallacea was named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had made the area as a focus for his studies and research from 1985 to 1961. The presence of Korindo in Halmanhera has not only led to the destruction of the main economic resource of local people but is also threatening this ecosystem.

Ahmad Rusydi Rasjid, the Director of the North Moluccas Chapter of Walhi, said that the appearance of the beetle pest was one of the examples ot the impact of the disappearance of a link in the ecosystem. These organisms which usually live in the forest, have now come out for the forest and attacked the crops of local people.

Rusydi said that the plague of beetles has begun to attack local crops in 2017 and this should be seen as an agricultural emergency. Rusydi said that the impact of the clearing of forests also has threatened the habitat of birds such as the white parrot and other crooked beak birds and these species may soon disappear from the region.

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Arga Christyan, A forest warden from the Conservation Section of the North Moluccas Office for Natural Resources Conservation, said that the clearing of the Gane forest coverage has disturbed the existing ecosystem.

“The damaged forest is forcing species that used to live in it to seek new places. If the new places are still forests, then there will be no problem. But if the new places have also been converted into fields or settlements, then do not be surprised if the insects eat local crops, that snakes err into settlements and so forth,” he added.

Arga said that there were many species living in the Gane Forest, including deer, and endemic birds such as the Papuan hornbill, crooked beaks, white parrots, chattering lories and macaws.

He said that the forested area was under the supervision of the North Moluccas Forestry office as they were areas managed under Forest Operation Permits (HPT) and Timber Estate Operation permits (HPHT).

A joint report of TuK Indonesia and Walhi said that in the case of South Halmahera, investment in palm oil plantations have been opposed by the people in Gane because it took up agricultural land belonging to residents and also encroached into natural forests.

TuK or Transformation for Indonesia is a non-governmental organization that advocates environmental issues. It has a number of independent offices as well as grass root groups in 28 provinces across Indonesia while Walhi deals with a broad range of issues, including agrarian conflicts, access to natural resources, people’s rights and deforestation.

In the joint report, TuK and Walhi said that the case involving the Korindo group showed how opportunistic corporations made use of the weak local government to obtain access to valuable timber and land, how they destroyed local economic activities and how they left permanent impacts on the social and environmental conditions for years.

The clearing of forests for oil palm plantations has been ongoing since 2012 and has also impacted on the mangrove forests in coastal areas.

Abdul Mutalib Angkotasan, a researcher at the Faculty for Fishery at the Khairun University in Ternate, said that sedimentation has taken place in the coastal mangrove forest of Gane Forest since 2016. “Sedimentation from the land clearing for oil palm on land has led to runoffs in the rainy season. These runoffs have increased the murkiness of the water in the coral reef ecosystem there, including in the surrounding sea grass fields,” Abdul said.

He added that the sedimentation in the area will also lead to damage to the coral reefs.

What Korindo and The Government Say
Part of the palm oil plantations in Gane Dalam. (Hairil Hiar)
Part of the palm oil plantations in Gane Dalam. (Hairil Hiar)

Mizwar Mustafa, Field Spokesman for PT GMM said that the massive land clearing by Korindo was started in 2012.

“Yes. That was started in 2012 until 2017. The forest cleared are those based on their location in the HGU area. This means that they belong to us and we have the permit, so that we under the obligation to conduct the land clearing in line with the company’s procedures,” Mizwar said at the Korindo Group representative office in Hidayat village, Bacan island.

Mizwar said that the damage to the ecosystem and the various conflicts that have been taking place were not due to the clearing of the natural forests or the conversion of local fields into oil palm plantation.

He denied that the environmental damage was due to the disappearance of natural forest following the land clearing activities for the oil palm plantations. “It just so happened, that I am also in the enviro section that took water samples. There are several locations where water points, rivers and the sea were not polluted and their water met water quality standards,” he said.

The biodiversity in Gane, Mizwar said, was also maintained. In 2017, according to him, Korindo deployed a team from the Forest Biodiversity and Rehabilitation Study Center (Bioref) to identify endemic animals and local plants. “We even promoted to each of our employees and residents of Gane that they need to safeguard this biodiversity,” he said.

In relations to the many environmental problems affecting a number of villages around the oil palm plantation company, Mizwar said that so far there has been no reports received on those complaints.

“The Bioref team has already surveyed to social and environmental impact. The conclusion was that there was no damage,” he said.

However, the company declined to show the report on the results of the Bioref survey team that PT GMM claimed was held in cooperation with the Bogor Institute of Agriculture. Among the reports that were asked to be shown were those showing which regions were said to have their nature and endemic animals well conserved and were not threatened.

Mizwar even said that the plague of beetles that are attacking local crops was also attacking the oil palm plantation. “So, this is nothing new. the existence of pests that attack people’s coconut plantations can also be found across Indonesia,” he argued.

The presence of Korindo, according to Mizwar, was having a positive impact on the local population. “Up until now we are not yet producing (palm oil) but we are already meeting our obligations, through our CSR fund in 2012-2019. By now it has reached some Rp7 billion,” he said.

The company’s CSR program takes the form of financial assistance for cooperative in Gane Dalam, Yamli and Sekli villages, Korindo buses, school and health assistance for South Halmahera, the construction of road in Gane Dalam, the renovation of the Awis mosque and scholarship for students from Gane Dalam, Mizwar explained.

He added that the conflict that have taken place with residents of Gane is between residents that are in favor of the presence of the company in the area and those who oppose it. The conflicts, he said, were not land-based.

Korindo, according to Mizwar, also contributed to the South Halmahera district. “We also pay taxes. This is done through the regional bank when it concerns excavation taxes and soil water taxes,” he said.

Mizwar added that the construction of the palm oil mill in Gane was still at the coordination stage with Korindo Jakarta. “The plan for the construction of this palm oil mill dates from 2017 but it has faced a number of constraints so that the construction has not started. Hopefully in 2019, this can happen because the infrastructure is now ready,” he said.

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He also said that Korindo still needed more land for its oil palm plantation. The expansion was restricted by the Presidential Instruction of President Joko Widodo regarding the moratorium and the evaluation of palm oil concessions issued on September 2018. The expansion, Mizwar said, has thus been halted and the plantation had only cleared 8,800 hectares.

“From that area, only about 5,000 hectares have been planted with oil palm,” he added.

South Halmahera District Chief Bahrain Kasuba said that since the operation of the Korindo company in his region, he has not yet heard of any unrest or complain from the people of Gane. “Because the palm oil company in Gane has already been well arranged, including its spatial environmental lay out, is in line with the regulations,” he said.

Bahrain however, admitted that the Gane Forest had now been cleared and planted with oil palm. ‘The trees in Gane Forest have already been logged out, but they were immediately replaced with oil palm so that a forest can grow again,” he added.

He also denied that the crops and field of local resident within the concession were sources of conflicts between the company with villagers and land owners. “The probIem is not because the fields were appropriated, but residents were angered because their crops and fields were attacked by pests that they believed appeared because of the oil palm,” he said.

Bahrain blamed local people for not maintaining their crop well in their own land, so that they became the targets of the pests. “Residents should have well maintained their own field so that they do not get attacked by the pests. So that is what became the problem,” Bahrain said.

He aired hope that PT GMM could as soon as possible built its palm oil mill so that it can contribute to the revenue of the region. “Because up until now, there is not yet any revenue coming from the oil palm company. This because they are still planting and do not yet produces,” he added.

Regarding environmental problem and the land of local people appropriated by Korindo, Bahrain said that the district government could do nothing, “This is because the Gane forest area has become the area of the company. Also, because it is part of the policy of the previous government and therefore I am only adjusting. The authority has also been transferred to the provincial government,” he argued.

The head of Gane Dalam village, Risman Abdulajid, meanwhile, declined to comment when confronted at the village office, saying that he had to attend an event held by local residents. Risman disappeared after the event and he has since continued to decline to comment on the issue.

Adaptation and Recommendations

The majority of fields and plantations belonging to Gane Dalam residents have now been purchased by the company. A few, however, still have fields and plantations on the coast of Sekli and Awis villages and these have not yet been taken over. One of the owners of these remaining fields is Yani, who has opted to stay and live from what remained of her land there. Those villagers who have sold their land had to change profession and become daily laborers at the plantations of the palm oil company.

Some residents simply chose to leave the village and move to Ternate or Tidore. One of the cases was in Yomen village in the sub-district of Joronga Islands. Arifin, a resident of Yomen, chose to sell his 10 hectares of land and coconut field for Rp 185 million.

“Now, Mr. Arifin, his wife and children, have moved to Tidore Kepulauan City,” said Ruslan from Seki village.

Ruslan said Arifin sold his land to another villager in Gane Dalam and said that his decision to sell was prompted by disappointment over the failure of local efforts to defend land and fields from being purchased by the company, to get widespread support.

The presence of the company that is part of the Korindo group in the region has already led to the destruction of the environment and other impacts and these needed to be addressed. Among the impacts were the appearance of floods in Sekli during the rainy season, and residents with fields and plantation near the company plantation have now began to face difficulties obtaining clean water.

“The impact will become more serious when the company clears new land and build its palm oil mill. After the company began to operate, there have been six small rivers that have disappeared. Four river which depended on rain for their water and two rivers with their own water springs, were covered by landfill,” Rusydi said.

Walhi, Rusydi said, was recommending that the central government freezes all operations of PT GMM in Gane, including the construction of the palm oil mill and the expansion of logging and new plantations near Tanjung Rotan and Tawa-Pasidele which have not received the support of local land owners and communities.

Walhi was also calling on PT GMM to prove that the entire operation of the Korindo Group was complying to the laws and regulations, by making public all its permits and key documents, including location permit, and its environmental impact assessment (EIA). Should there be legal flaws in those documents, the operation of PTGMM should be frozen.

“To the KPK (the Anti-Corruption Commission), it should conduct a review to see whether there was any official who had assisted the company not following the procedures or has shown favors to Korindo in the issuance of permits or licenses, and investigate the related financial transactions if the review shows that a violation had taken place,” he said.

Rusydi continued that Walhi is calling on the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs to issue instruction to the National Accreditation Committee to revoke all SVLK certification issued to PT GMM or the Korindo plant which has processed timber obtained from PT GMM.

“Also, it should further review the wider compliance of Korindo to SVLK, request the Environment Agency (BLK) to provide a copy of the EIA of PT GMM to all people affected by the impact and to local civilian groups,” he added.