Indonesian palm oil companies have been playing a dangerous game: burning forests to clear land that has already been dried out by their activities – just to cut production costs. This practice is illegal because it is a major cause of wildfires that have destroyed ecosystems and generated massive atmospheric pollution in Indonesia and nearby countries over the past few years. A group of Indonesian environmental NGOs have been investigating how palm oil companies are continuing to harm the environment with impunity.
A number of wildfires tore through Indonesia in October 2023 – something that has become a common occurrence in recent years. On the island of Sumatra, the blazes led to the closure of several schools. For NGOs operating in Indonesia, including Greenpeace and the local organisation Pantau Gambut, the culprit is clear: palm oil companies are to blame for these fires.
The NGOs accuse these companies of using these fires to clear the land – a cheaper and faster option than bulldozers. Then, the companies plant palm trees in the cleared land. While using fire to clear land is a traditional practice, it has been illegal in Indonesia since 2009.
Environmental NGOs have seen a real increase in fires in Indonesia’s tropical peatlands, which are under threat by the palm oil industry.
‘It’s the cheapest method’
More than 14,000 fires were recorded in August, four times the number in July, according to Pantau Gambut, an Indonesian NGO that monitors fires in the peatlands.
This increase in fires can be directly linked to the palm oil companies for two reasons, says Abil Salsabila, a member of Pantau Gambut:
Some of these palm oil companies start fires so they can clear the land and start a plantation there, because it is the cheapest method.
It’s important to add that these companies drain the peatlands to water their plantations. That dries out the peatlands and makes them more vulnerable to fires overall. Their soil is made up of organic matter that has been decomposing for thousands of years and the oxidation process from this decomposition makes them even more flammable.
Oxidation generates carbon dioxide (CO2). In case of a fire, this build-up of CO2 adds to the CO2 created by the fire. Therefore, dried-out peatlands represent between 5 and 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Satellites images and investigation on the ground
The explosive cocktail of dried-out peatlands and clearing with fire is behind one of the biggest ecological catastrophes in southeast Asia.
Even after the massive fires in 2015, palm oil companies are still burning land, as shown by the meticulous documentation carried out by environmental NGOs like Greenpeace Indonesia and Pantau Gambut.
Pantau Gambut monitors fires in the palm oil concessions using several tools – first, an online map that documents fires in Indonesia, satellite image analysis and on-the-ground investigation.
The map, made by the Indonesian firm BRIN, shows where the fires have started. Out of 126,146 fires that began between July 1 and September 3, 2023, 27.5% were within palm oil concessions, according to Greenpeace Indonesia. Concessions are land granted by the government to plant oil companies to establish plantations.
Pantau Gambut identified 675 fires that began in a palm oil concession belonging to PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan, in the province of West Kalimantan (the island of Borneo). The company has already been convicted of clearing land by burning it.
A number of fires began in another palm oil concession owned by PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ) in the province of South Sumatra. This company has also been found guilty of using fire to clear land in the past. In 2019, the Indonesian Supreme Court ruled that the WAJ was one of the parties responsible for the 2015 fires.
Pantau Gambut used satellite imagery in order to identify which fires began with land clearing. For example, the image below shows part of the same concession, belonging to PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan, in 2019 and again in 2023.
This fire took place in the province of West Kalimantan (Borneo) in a protected area.
Certain zones had been cleared in 2019 (above right) but there is no trace of fire.
In August 2023, a large swathe of land in the concession burned. You can see smoke, typical of these wildfires, above and around the region.
Alongside the burned zone, there is also a rectangle that indicates agricultural land ready to harvest.
The researchers at Pantau Gambut also carry out on-the-ground investigations to see what happened to the areas shown to have been burned in the satellite images.
The images above show that plantations have been set up on land burned during the fires in 2015. That’s not what was supposed to happen to these lands – the palm oil companies were supposed to restore them to their natural state, at the request of the government.
‘The fact that there are still fires show that the concession owners haven’t taken any measures’
The courts have found the palm oil companies guilty of contributing to the fires in other ways as well.
Under Indonesian law, palm oil companies are responsible for any fires that start on their land or within one kilometre of their land. In July 2023, the Indonesian Supreme Court fined a palm oil company 57 million euros for burning 2,560 hectares of land in its concession between 2018 and 2019.
Moreover, after the terrible fires in 2015, Indonesia also brought in several laws and policies to help save the peatlands and avoid fires in the concessions. Since 2017, palm oil companies found to have damaged peat lands within their concessions have to enact strategies to rehydrate the land.
However, NGOs on the ground say that while the laws exist, they aren’t being respected. Salsabila explained:
In reality, the law isn’t being enforced. The Ministry of the Environment will prosecute companies that break this law and some of them have been fined millions of euros but, in the end, the fines are often reduced and there is no transparency to know if the companies that were fined have paid up or not.
For example, our researchers showed that in August and September 2023, a number of fires began in a concession that had been found responsible for fires between 2015 and 2019.
There were also fires that began this year in a concession that belongs to PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ), which was found responsible for the 2015 fires and fined 28 million euros.
The fact that there are still fires show that they haven’t taken any measures – on the contrary.
And even if there are a bunch of fires that start in the concessions this month and it is government data that shows this, nothing is happening.
Some international corporations have stopped business with palm oil companies, because of their flagrant abuse of the environment as well as human rights. Kellogg’s became the 10th company in the world to end commercial ties with Astra Agro Lestari, the second biggest producer of palm oil in Indonesia.
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