Jakarta. A large chunk of protected forest in Padang Lawas district in North Sumatra, which has been illegally occupied and converted into large-scale commercial plantations by dozens of companies, has received widespread public attention as a local environmental organization has openly questioned the government's commitment to takeover, collect profits and re-plant on the troubled land.
The land within the so-called "Register 40" area, which encompasses 177,000 hectares, has been exploited for decades by planters even though Soekarno, the country's first president, granted it "protected forest" status, forbidding any transformation of the land by private persons and companies, including plantation owners.
Indeed, as many as 29 plantation companies, local cooperatives and private palm oil farmers have set up operations on area within Register 40.
To try to restore the land's original protected status, local communities have taken up arms in past decades in an attempt to drive out planters, claiming Register 40 land was handed down by ancestors and thus should not be tampered with. Lawsuits between palm oil companies and the government have also played out in Jakarta courts.
From Unexecuted Court Ruling to Misery of Profit Collections
Dana Tarigan, the executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) branch in North Sumatra, questioned the government's commitment to manage Register 40 and reforest the land to prevent further damage to the environment wrought by the numerous palm oil plantations.
Walhi is a member of the Friends of the Earth International network.
The government scored a victory in a legal battle against Darianus Lungguk Sitorus, an influential businessman, and a handful of local cooperatives over the right to manage 47,000 hectares of land within Register 40. In 2007, a Supreme Court ruling demanded that the then-Ministry of Forestry (President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo created the present-day Ministry of the Environment and Forestry) takeover the land.
Darianus, who passed away in August, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2005 after being found guilty for "forest encroachment" after two companies he was affiliated with, Torganda and Torus Ganda, began operations on the land. He served four and a half years in prison before being released in mid-2009.
However, despite the court's ruling, the forestry ministry has yet to takeover the land and still allows occupant companies to continue their operations within Register 40. Companies and farmers alike have been granted permission to grow their palm oil crops for one life-cycle, which can last for more than 30 years.
Palm oil is widely regarded as one of the most profitable oilseed crops, and the ministry expects companies still operating on Register 40 to hand over part of their proceeds to the government.
"My question is where is the money? Any profits from the use of the land within that area should go to the state coffer and the government should have been able to use that money to reforest the area," Dana told the Jakarta Globe via telephone interview on Tuesday (12/09).
Surprisingly, some state-owned companies also operate within Register 40, including Perkebunan Nusantara IV, Perkebunan Nusantara II and Inhutani IV.
Dana said that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which took place in June, he met with Forestry Ministry officials to remind them that all occupants on Register 40 land, including government-run companies, are running illegal operations and should be sanctioned.
He added that the government should not hesitate to evict all occupants on Register 40 and recover profits from their operations in a bid to fund the cost of reforestation.
Ministry: 'No Cherry Picking'
Djati Witjaksono, the spokesman for the Environment and Forestry Ministry, said the ministry never intended to chery pick" in executing the mandate from the 2007 Supreme Court ruling.
He said the ministry is working to identify possible sanctions for companies believed to have occupied the land illegally.
"We have priority scale, we are working on it, there may be some facing heavy [sanctions], moderate, or there are some that may just be administratively sanctioned," Djati said.
The ministry is currently preparing to takeover land operated by Torganda within Register 40.