In Disturbing Trend, as Forest Loss Lessens within the Leuser Ecosystem’s Government-Issued Concessions, it is Rising Outside of Them

Major loopholes identified in the ‘No Deforestation’ commitments of global brands

Climate scientists are clear that, alongside weaning our societies off of fossil fuels, any viable solution to the rapidly accelerating climate crisis must also involve achieving drastic reductions to the current rate of deforestation around the world, especially in tropical forest regions. Large expanses of intact forest habitat are increasingly rare around the world and those that remain are precious for their globally important role in carbon sequestration and for the habitat they provide for iconic, critically endangered species of wildlife. 

Despite the urgent need to protect the world’s last standing rainforests, deforestation continues in Indonesia’s extraordinary Leuser Ecosystem and a troubling new trend is emerging. An analysis of forest loss in 2021 shows that deforestation outside of areas that have been allocated by the government of Indonesia for oil palm development is on the rise in the Leuser Ecosystem. Of grave concern is the persistence of both illegal and government sanctioned expansion into nationally protected areas in the Leuser Ecosystem. 

Oil palm expansion in an area formerly inside the Gunung Leuser National Park in the Leuser Ecosystem, Indonesia. GPS Coordinates: 04º01’11.30″N 98º02’22.48″E

Nearly 125,000 acres of lowland rainforests remain under threat in the Leuser Ecosystem and new deforestation trends are emerging

Satellite analysis for 2021 shows that 10,800 acres of lowland forests were destroyed outside of concession areas inside the Leuser Ecosystem. This compared to 932 acres of lowland rainforests that were logged and cleared within the concessions of palm oil companies. This analysis of forest loss in 2021 shows that deforestation outside areas that have been allocated by the government of Indonesia for oil palm development is occurring at a large scale and is a worrying trend for this internationally recognized, high conservation-priority landscape. 

The problem of deforestation within palm oil concessions has been reported on extensively and remains a problem today. In December, RAN published a report detailing the palm oil companies most responsible for deforestation within government issued concession areas. It is worrying that nearly 125,000 acres of lowland rainforests remain at risk within areas allocated by the government of Indonesia for industrial plantations or logging concessions inside the Leuser Ecosystem. Nearly 25,000 acres of these lowland rainforests remain within palm oil concessions. 

But, in addition to this ongoing forest loss, a new problem – deforestation outside of known concessions – is quickly emerging. This deforestation is being committed by a variety of actors within the palm oil industry that often remain invisible to major brands sourcing palm oil, even though many already have public ‘No Deforestation’ commitments. The core issue is that brands are still largely failing to fully map their supply chain down to the plantation level and so they do not actually know where all the palm oil they source was grown. This creates a dangerous blindspot that leaves brands with no idea if they may in fact be sourcing from the actors responsible for deforestation outside ‘known’ concessions.

Two cases of rampant deforestation outside known concessions in the Leuser Ecosystem warrant urgent attention by palm oil buyers like Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever and their suppliers, as well as the district and national governments of Indonesia. One case involves a retired public servant––named Mr. Bukhary––responsible for deforestation inside the boundaries of the Gunung Leuser National Park in an area now located in the district of Aceh Tamiang. This is the district in Aceh where PepsiCo and Unilever report to be working alongside their suppliers and governments to end deforestation for palm oil. The other case involves another elite local figure responsible for destroying carbon-rich peat forests in the Singkil Bengkung area. Forest destruction in this region is frequently connected to locally influential individuals who wield power and have access to resources –many times resulting from a position afforded to them through their current or past work in a government related institution. These cases, and the ongoing deforestation by palm oil companies like PT. Nia Yulided Bersaudara, show that Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever and their suppliers need to do more to end deforestation for palm oil in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Deforestation inside the Gunung Leuser National Park by Mr. Bukhary

The largest area of deforestation in Aceh Tamiang is for a new expanse of palm oil plantations near the Tenggulun Village in Tenggulun District. RAN’s field investigations have uncovered that the person responsible for the new development is Mr. Bukhary ––a Medan based retired civil servant. In March 2021, Mr. Bukhary erected a sign claiming ownership rights to 2,718 acres of land after a district court decision affirmed his claims to ownership of the land.  Since then 150 acres were cleared and deforestation has continued into 2022. The scale of clearance shown in the maps below is somewhat surprising as deforestation for new palm oil plantations has persisted in 2022 despite the district government of Aceh Tamiang’s announcement of actions to address deforestation for palm oil expansion and support for responsible production of palm oil by producers and smallholder farmers across the district. These lands were formerly part of the district of Langkat in North Sumatra.

A sign at the entrance to the new oil palm plantations claiming Mr. Bukhary’s ownership rights to 2718 acres of land. GPS Coordinates: 04º00’04.90″N 98º02’04.95″E 

Satellite map showing the area of forests cleared between April 2021 and January 2022 inside the boundaries of the Gunung Leuser National Park after Mr Bukhary erected a sign claiming ownership rights to the lands. This map also shows the changes that have been made to the boundaries of the protected area since 2005 and modification of the boundaries for the districts of Aceh Tamiang in Aceh and Langkat in North Sumatra.

In 2021, RAN investigators went to the area in question to document the expansion of palm oil plantations by Mr Bukhary. Investigators found excavators and a worker’s camp that had been set up surrounding the areas being planted with oil palm trees. The team also found that the land now controlled by Mr Bukhary includes lands that were once forests inside the boundaries of the Gunung Leuser National Park. Areas planted with oil palm were found next to a warning sign declaring the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park. It appears that this area that was once a diverse rainforest has been converted into palm oil plantations ––the resulting degradation led to changes to the boundary of the protected area.

The park, in addition to being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the last stronghold essential for the continued survival of critically endangered wildlife species including Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Sumatran elephants.The steps through which Mr Bukhari gained permission to convert lands that were formerly within a protected area are unclear––as this activity is prohibited under Indonesian law unless exceptions are granted by the Minister for Environment and Forestry. The lands claimed by Mr Bukhary were formerly part of the neighboring district of Langkat, in the province of North Sumatra, so exceptions may have been granted by district and provincial governments of North Sumatra.

A sign demarking the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park is located inside the area claimed as Mr Bukhary’s palm oil plantation. GPS Coordinates: 03º59’53.55″N 98º02’01.94″E 

An excavator behind a stump in an area that once was a rainforest on lands now controlled by Mr Bukhary. GPS Coordinates: 04º01’00.80″N 98º02’42.04″E

A nursery with oil palms that are ready to be planted in lands cleared by Mr Bukhary. 

GPS Coordinates: 03º59’40.19″N 98º01’44.65″E

Mr Bukhary’s ownership rights remain contested. In the past year, following the issuance of the district court decision, conflicts continued to re-emerge with residents whose lands overlap with those claimed by Mr Bukhary. Residents from the Adil Makmur II, Tenggulun Village and the  Independent Swakarsa Forest Farmers Group continue to challenge the decision of the district court. The conflict between these parties has persisted for over a year and reached a climax when the police arrested three residents of the village. 

Mr Bukhary’s new palm oil plantation area is adjacent to the concession controlled by PT. Sisirau––a controversial palm oil company headed up by Mr. Joefly Joesoef Bahroeny that has been exposed for the destruction of orangutan habitat. There have been reported incidents of Sumatran orangutans trapped within PT. Sisirau’s concessions so it is very likely that this new palm oil plantation development will exacerbate the threats facing the endangered Sumantran orangutans that depend on these rainforests for their survival. This case shows that in the Leuser Ecosystem even the last remaining forests within the protected forests inside the Gunung Leuser National Park have not been adequately protected from palm oil plantation expansion.

Deforestation persists inside the Singkil Bengkung region

Critically important peat forests in the Singkil Bengkung region have been cleared and new drainage canals dug in deep peat soils to establish new oil palm plantations. This landscape is the last hope for the Sumatran elephants, tigers and orangutans and is facing a death of a million cuts. There is a clear trend of the involvement of local elites in illegal palm oil operations in the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve––the area of the Singkil peatland with the highest level of protection offered under Indonesian law. 

An investigation by Indonesian media outlet documented encroachment into about 124 acres of peatforests by one local elite.The peat forest was intentionally burned to prepare the land for palm oil development, even though the government had erected signage prohibiting land clearing in this location, which is part of the nationally protected Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve. To our knowledge, the government of Indonesia has not yet established an investigation into this most recent case of illegal palm oil development in the nationally protected reserve. Kompas also identified that a total of 1579 acres was destroyed inside the reserve from January to October in 2021. 

Caption: Image of illegal palm oil encroachment inside the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in the Leuser Ecosystem. 24th October, 2021. Credit: Forum Jurnalis Lingkungan (FJL) Aceh

Caption: Image of illegal palm oil encroachment inside the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in the Leuser Ecosystem. October 2021. GPS Coordinates: 02º’50’4.656″N 97º42’28.212″E 
Caption: Image of illegal palm oil encroachment inside the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in the Leuser Ecosystem. October 2021. GPS Coordinates: 02º’50’28.95″N 97º42’46.872″E 

This isn’t the first time that a scandal has been reported involving local elites illegally clearing peatforests in the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve. RAN also exposed major brands for sourcing palm oil from mills being supplied with illegal palm oil from a different local elite caught destroying the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve. One of the worst offenders has been the palm oil mill called PT. Global Sawit Semesta. Despite the ongoing illegal deforestation for palm oil in this region and the lack of adequate traceability and non-compliance systems in PT. GSS’s mill, a supplier of major brands called APICAL from the Royal Golden Eagle Group (RGE) has recently decided to resume sourcing from this controversial supplier. It is clear that companies like RGE Group –– and major brands like Procter & Gamble that continue to source from RGE Group––remain complicit with the expansion of palm oil by these rogue actors in the Singkil Bengkung region.

Major brands respond to the growing crisis of deforestation outside known concessions

The problem of deforestation outside known concessions in palm oil supply chains is beginning to receive recognition by major brands as a barrier in their efforts to implement existing ‘No Deforestation’ commitments. New alliances are forming to address the growing crisis, such as a working group in the Palm Oil Collaboration Group of which Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever, and their palm oil suppliers Cargill, Golden Agri Resources, Musim Mas are members. This group aims to intervene to prevent deforestation by a number of actors that are responsible for ongoing deforestation outside known concessions in Indonesia. 

A major focus is small to medium-sized plantations that the brands cannot prove are not entering their supply chains due to their failure to achieve full traceability to the source for all the palm oil they use. This loophole leaves the door open for palm oil to enter international supply chains from ‘unknown’ concessions controlled by actors that are illegally encroaching into forest and peat areas inside the Leuser Ecosystem or are engaging in ‘land speculation.’ This group has not yet published plans to take action to address deforestation in the globally important Leuser Ecosystem, despite repeated calls from RAN to do so, including years of documented cases of illegal deforestation caused by suppliers in the Singkil Bengkung region and the north-east lowland rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem. 

These two cases demonstrate the urgent need for brands to intervene to halt deforestation outside known concessions in the Leuser Ecosystem. Despite repeated scandals connecting brands like Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé, Mondelēz, and Ferrero to the producers responsible for the deforestation outside known concessions in this area these brands have not prioritized the landscape for collaborative monitoring and enforcement of ‘No Deforestation’ commitments both inside and outside of concessions. 

To date, only one actor––the palm oil trader Musim Mas––has committed to actively monitor deforestation across the Singkil Bengkung region, but its system is not yet operational. To date the Radar for Detecting Deforestation (RADD) forest monitoring consortium that includes Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Mondelēz has set up a collaborative monitoring system in Aceh but it is limited to monitoring in the north-eastern forest edge of the Leuser Ecosystem in the district of Aceh Tamiang. It remains a priority for the RADD collaborative monitoring efforts to expand its scope to monitor and respond to end deforestation for palm oil in the Singkil Bengkung region. 

“So much hard fought progress has been made in the past few years to stop the loss of the precious remaining forests of the Leuser Ecosystem, but it is absolutely imperative this important work be carried forward to address this new threat to this irreplaceable place. Global brands have shown that, with sufficient will, it is fully feasible to dig into their supply chains and create transparency and accountability amongst their palm oil suppliers. But that work is unfinished and unequally applied,” said Gemma Tillack with Rainforest Action Network. “And when it comes to the danger facing the Leuser of death by a thousand cuts, half measures are not enough to stop the forests from falling or iconic wildlife species from going extinct. The gaps identified here in the implementation of ‘No Deforestation’ commitments must be filled and the loopholes for unknown suppliers must be closed until customers around the world can finally trust that the palm oil they consume is truly from fully responsible sources.” 

Palm oil expansion threatens the lowland rainforests and peatlands in the Singkil Bengkung-region, including the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in the Leuser Ecosystem. 24th October 2021. GPS Coordinates: 02º’50’44.46″N 97º42’38.628″E 

Credit: Forum Jurnalis Aceh (FJL)