Company with political stakeholders seeks profit as Indonesian government cuts down orangutan habitat

A Bornean orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park. Photo courtesy of EIAImages
  • The Indonesian government has stripped back rules protecting the environment to expedite a plan to ramp up food production through a “food estate” programme.
  • A firm run by allies of the Minister of Defence has positioned itself to profit from the programme and is seeking $2 billion in investment.
  • Analysts say numerous rules have been broken and there are huge conflicts of interest at play, as the government sets its sights on the forests of Papua.

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This article is the result of a collaborative investigation with Tempo.

When the Indonesian government announced ambitious plans to ramp up domestic food production as the pandemic set in last June, officials claimed that it would not lead to “environmental destruction”.

Instead, as COVID-19 threw the world’s supply chains into disarray, officials would ward off the threat of an impending food crisis by boosting crop yields and promoting modern, environmentally sensitive farming techniques.

But within five months, workers acting under the instructions of the Ministry of Defence had fired up their chainsaws to cut down orangutan habitat in Borneo and replace it with a giant plantation.

The story behind this plantation reveals how the ministry has exploited regulations that were drafted hastily during the pandemic, stripping away environmental safeguards and opening up vast new areas of land for agriculture.

An investigation by The Gecko Project and Tempo discovered that the ministry moved so fast that it failed to comply even with these scaled-back rules, potentially illegally clearing hundreds of hectares of rainforest.

By August 2021, the Ministry of Defence had cut down hundreds of hectares of rainforest in Gunung Mas, a district in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Tempo/Save Our Borneo.

The plantation in Borneo, which could take over 32,000 hectares of land that for now is still mostly rainforest, represents just a fraction of the ministry’s ambitions. After Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto was handed a central role in the “food estate” programme, his officials drew up plans to plant more than one million hectares of cassava, a root vegetable, across the country.

The investigation also discovered evidence that the Ministry of Defence is attempting to steer food estate projects, which are potentially worth billions of dollars, to a company with no discernible track record in developing plantations. The company, PT Agro Industri Nasional, or Agrinas, is staffed by individuals from Prabowo’s inner circle.

Agrinas is owned by a non-profit foundation also controlled by Prabowo, with the support of a string of retired and serving top-ranking military officers. Analysts have questioned whether the ownership structure is legal, because it appears to violate rules that are meant to ensure such foundations serve charitable purposes.

They also say Prabowo’s close relationships with Agrinas’s executives and board members generate serious conflicts of interest.

Agrinas and the Ministry of Defence deny partnering on the food estate programme. Despite these denials, we found that Agrinas has sought $2 billion in investment from a foreign government by referencing its privileged access to the programme and connections to Prabowo.

Our investigation also found that the defence ministry is now moving ahead with its plan to develop further plantations in Papua, a biodiversity hotspot in the east of the country that holds part of the largest tract of intact rainforest in Asia.

Wetlands and rainforest in southern Papua. The proposed site of the food estate falls across lowland forests and wetlands, which hold large amounts of carbon. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti for Greenpeace.

The ministry’s efforts there are being led by a retired naval officer, who says the labour on plantations will be provided by young Papuans recruited into a newly-formed reserve military corps. Soldiers have already been deployed in support of the programme in Borneo.

The involvement of the military in Papua raises serious concerns, critics say, because the military has a track record of committing human rights abuses against the region’s indigenous population in the interests of advancing natural resource extraction and plantation projects.

The ministry has already presented plans to plant rice and cassava on thousands of hectares of forest and indigenous land in Merauke, a highly militarised district in the furthest eastern reaches of the country. But it has failed to share these plans with the people that they most affect. Local Papuan communities, whose legal rights have been eroded by the new regulations, remain in the dark.

“We’re racing against time”

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