Papua court ruling a win for local government, Indigenous groups against palm oil

  • A lawsuit by two palm oil companies to overturn a decision by a district government revoking their permits has been rejected by a court in Indonesia.
  • The ruling, which can still be appealed by the firms, would allow the government of Sorong district in West Papua province to take over the companies’ concessions, which span a combined area larger than New York City.
  • It also paves the way for the Indigenous communities whose territory fell within the concessions to finally have their land rights officially recognized.
  • The Sorong government still faces two other lawsuits filed by a third company whose permit it also revoked; a ruling is expected before the end of the year.

JAKARTA — A court in Indonesia has rejected a bid by two palm oil companies to have their permits restored after they were scrapped by local authorities for a litany of violations. For the Indigenous peoples whose territory fell within the companies’ concessions, the ruling offers a rare chance to finally have their land rights officially recognized.

On Dec. 7, state administrative court in Jayapura, Papua province, dismissed the lawsuits filed by PT Papua Lestari Abadi (PLA) and PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS) against the decision made by the district government of Sorong in West Papua province to revoke their permits.

The Sorong government rescinded the permits of three companies on April 27, after years of struggle by Indigenous communities in the region to get their land rights recognized and defend their territories from palm oil companies. In justifying the decision, the government said the companies had failed to fulfill their obligations as laid out in the plantation permits, such as reporting the progress of their operations, updating changes to their shareholding, and keeping their location permits up to date.

The three companies also lacked a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting.

The violations were uncovered during a province-wide audit of oil palm plantation licenses, which was started in 2018 and found widespread administrative and legal violations, including lack of necessary licenses and land abandonment. The audit was jointly carried out by various government institutions, including the national anti-corruption agency (known as the KPK), the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and the Ministry of Agriculture; and was a mandate of President Joko Widodo’s freeze on issuing new palm oil permits.

Two of the companies, PLA and SAS, chose to challenge the revocation, arguing that it was done unlawfully and had harmed them. But the Jayapura court has now ruled otherwise.

Sorong district head Johny Kamuru, who had ordered the revocation of the permits, welcomed the ruling.

“I think this is a victory for all of us, not just me,” he said in an online press conference after the verdict. “This [ruling] opens the door for forest management in Papua region.”

University students hold banners to support Sorong district head Johny Kamuru, who is sued by three palm oil companies in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Asrida Elisabeth/Mongabay Indonesia.

Gideon Kilme, an Indigenous Papuan whose village of Tarsa in Konhir subdistrict overlapped with SAS’s concession, also welcomed the ruling.

“Today, we feel very relieved,” said Gideon, who only found out about the overlap after the permit was revoked in April.

Petrus P. Eli, one of the lawyers representing the Sorong district government in the lawsuit, said the two companies could still file an appeal. The Sorong government also faces two other lawsuits, both filed by PT Inti Kebun Lestari (IKL), the third palm oil company whose permit was revoked. Rulings in both cases are expected before the end of the year, Petrus said.

Together, the three companies held concessions covering 90,031 hectares (222,471 acres) of land in Sorong — an area larger than New York City.

Nur Amalia, another lawyer representing the district government in the case, said the state would be able to take control over the three concessions once the verdicts are final, which means either the companies choose not to appeal, or their appeals are rejected.

“But if the companies file an appeal, then the status of the lands is still status quo until the verdicts are final,” she said. “But the discussion on the future [of the lands] can start now even if the companies file an appeal.”

The companies’ lawyer, Juhari, said they would appeal the verdict.

Johny said his government is coming up with a plan to give back the land to the Indigenous communities living in the area and improve their livelihoods. The district recently established a committee tasked with identifying the area’s Indigenous groups as well as verifying and validating their requests for official recognition of their customary rights.

According to the EcoNusa Foundation, an NGO that advocates for community-led sustainable resource management in Indonesia’s eastern regions, there are six subdistricts in Sorong that are in the process of applying for their Indigenous territories to be officially recognized, some of which overlap with the rescinded concessions.


Banner image: A trial session of a lawsuit filed by two palm oil companies against Sorong district head Johny Kamuru in the Jayapura state administrative court in Papua. Image courtesy of Roberto/EcoNusa Foundation.


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