Experts were discussing a controversial proposal to classify palm-oil plantations as forest. However, the event in Jakarta was interrupted by swearing and pornography
A group of scientists, businesspeople, and civil servants gathered at a Jakarta conference centre on 25 November to listen to a presentation given by a distinguished forest professor. Then chaos broke out.
Over the speakers, a tinny female voice said repeatedly in English “fuck you”. One person watching online, who asked to remain anonymous, told Climate Home News: “The presenter could not [do]Anything after the hacker somehow muted the audio. Later, [it]It was quite shocking that the screen displayed a porn scene. It took about five minutes then the presenter left the meeting.”
The Zoom webcast featured random people writing nonsense and abusive language about Indonesians in the chat column. The seminar was stopped after ten minutes.
At issue was whether palm oil, which is used in a wide variety of consumer goods, should be considered a forestry product – a question with high stakes for the multi billion dollar industry and the climate. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil; expansion threatens natural forest rich in carbon and wildlife.
The hackers did not reveal their identities or what they wanted so both sides tried to blame the other. Palm oil’s defenders paint themselves as victims of a media offensive, while environmentalists see the hacking as consistent with a pattern of intimidation by the industry.
The seminar’s official organiser, Yanto Santosa, is a long-time defender of palm oil from the forest department of Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), where the seminar was held. He told the Palm Oil Indonesia website that he suspected the hackers disagreed with the seminar’s proposal.
Gulat Manarung (chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Farmers Association, Apkasindo), shared his suspicions. He was sentenced for bribing a government official to reclassify a land he had planted oil palm. He attended the seminar and said the hacking was part of a “social media war” against palm oil stoked by journalists.
Boy Even Sembiring is an environmental lawyer and director at the WALHI Riau group. He disagreed. He told Climate Home News that the hackers were likely to be “someone who disagree[d with] the academic information presented by the dean”.
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While the seminar’s proposal was that palm oil plantations should be considered as forest, the presenter who was interrupted was arguing the case against. Sigit Sunarta is the Gadjah Mada university’s dean of the forestry section and is well-known for his criticism of the palm oil sector.
He wrote a blog post following the event stating that he was about write a blog post arguing that palm oil expansion had caused deforestation, decreased biodiversity, increased floods, droughts, and fires, and that it had also hurt local communities.
“In the midst of various natural disasters (especially floods) that have occurred in various parts of Indonesia, most of which are considered to be due to the conversion of forests into oil palm plantations, this proposal is considered unethical,” he wrote.
The destruction of forests by palm oil plantations has a negative impact on the habitats of small elephants, tigers and rhinos, as well as endangered species like orangutans, tigers and rhinos. This often makes them more likely to come in contact with humans. In August, a tiger attacked a 16-year-old boy at a palm oil plantation.
For palm oil, fire is often used to clear forests. The fires can become out of control. Palm oil is a very thirsty crop that can lead to more drought. Deforestation can also make flooding more likely.
Oil palm absorbs carbon like all plants. However, it absorbs less carbon over the long-term than the natural tropical forests or peatlands it replaces.
Kiki Taufik, the leader of Greenpeace’s Indonesian forest campaign, said the palm oil industry has a history of using dirty tricks against critics, particularly against rural activists, journalists and indigenous people.
Two Indonesian journalists who opposed palm oil expansion were stabbed in the back to death in November 2019. A police officer investigating the murder said he suspected “the motive is revenge over oil palm plantations”.
A security guard was accused by a palm oil company of stealing palm oil fruit. He was arrested by police in April 2021. The man was a member an indigenous group that had opposed the company. His lawyers stated that there were irregularities with his arrest.
One week prior to the hack seminar, a local official had been arrested on suspicion that he took bribes in the palm oil industry. Andi Putra was charged with taking a $141,000 bribe in order to extend a palm oil license.
Apkasindo is the national representative of palm oil producers. The Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, Gapki, is the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association. The Indonesian government is under pressure to stop and reverse deforestation. Much of this is due to palm oil plantations being replaced by forests. They have been pushing for oil palm reclassification as a forest product.
Aida Greenbury, an Indonesian sustainability expert, said: “Creating vague definitions for ‘forest’ is a common tactic by policy makers and corporations. In this case, it could be used to change the perception of deforestation being associated with palm oil.”
She added: “Categorising oil palm plantations as ‘forest’ could be used to lower the country’s official deforestation rate, as well as make them eligible for carbon offsets… It would probably even legalise oil palm plantation development in protected forest areas.”
Campaigners fear they might be successful. “[The industry association] Gapki have a lot of money,” said Greenpeace’s Taufik. “They can influence the government…
“That’s why it’s important for us as civil society to fight this because otherwise, five years from now, then it’s become part of the forest and that would be a disaster for us,” he added.
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At last month’s Cop26 climate summit, Indonesia was one of 141 countries to agree to collectively “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”.
Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister, wrote on Facebook that she was returning from Glasgow and that this commitment should be taken as a promise to end deforestation.
“Massive development under way under President Jokowi’s era must not stop in name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation,” she said.
Siti didn’t respond to a request to comment on the proposal for palm oil to be reclassified.
Source: Climate Change News