The Last of the Leuser Lowlands: Field Investigation Exposes Big Brands Buying Illegal Palm Oil From the Singkil-Bengkung Peatlands

GPS: N 2°50’51.0” E 97°43’14’’

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) conducted a series of undercover investigations in 2019 into the alarming destruction of peat forests occurring within the globally important lowland rainforests of Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem. The field research was conducted to determine if the forest clearance was being driven by major snack food brands, even though these brands had adopted policies years ago to end deforestation in their supply chains. The results of the investigations are definitive. Palm oil is being grown illegally inside the nationally protected Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve and that oil is being used to manufacture snack foods sold across the world by Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelēz, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and Hershey’s.

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Forests of the Singkil-Bengkung region of the Leuser Ecosystem (Photo: Paul Hilton)
Forests of the Singkil-Bengkung region of the Leuser Ecosystem (Photo: Paul Hilton)

The Leuser Ecosystem’s Singkil-Bengkung region — which includes the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, the Singkil and Kluet peatlands, and the connecting lowland rainforests — is a global hotspot for biological diversity. It is one of the highest priority conservation landscapes in the world as it consists of ancient, deep, carbon-rich peatlands and provides critical habitat for endangered Sumatran elephants, rhinos and tigers. The area has been called the ‘orangutan capital of the world’ because it is home to the densest populations of orangutans to be found anywhere.

Rhino, Tiger, Elephant, Orangutan
(Photos: Paul Hilton)

The brands named here have been found purchasing palm oil from mills that have continued to source palm oil resulting from the illegal clearing of lowland rainforests within the nationally protected Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve. These mills are located immediately next to areas of illegal encroachment into the Leuser Ecosystem and lack the necessary procedures to trace the location where the palm oil they sell is grown, a key requirement for complying with the No Deforestation, No Peatlands, No Exploitation (NDPE) policies all of these brands have publicly committed to.

Peatland drainage and clearance for palm oil plantation expansion in the Singkil-Bengkung lowlands (Photo: Nanang Sujana)
Peatland drainage and clearance for palm oil plantation expansion in the Singkil-Bengkung lowlands (Photo: Nanang Sujana)

RAN’s investigations also expose glaring hypocrisy by global banks. The expansion of Conflict Palm Oil into this region is being driven by banks who are financing major palm oil traders which are active in the region, most notably Golden Agri-Resources. Japan’s Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Dutch bank ABN Amro and Singapore’s OCBC appear to not even be complying with their own policies as their client continues to source illegal palm oil grown in the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.

Progress has been made by some companies implementing their NDPE policies, but the findings of these investigations show that paper promises are not enough to keep the forests from falling. The Leuser Ecosystem at large, and the Singkil-Bengkung region in particular, still offers a rare and fleeting opportunity to get it right and avoid the devastating mistakes made throughout so much of Indonesia in the past. It remains possible here to prevent the destruction of habitat which drives iconic wildlife species toward extinction, to avert the human suffering from inevitable floods and landslides caused by deforestation and to end the reckless burning of carbon-filled peatlands contributing to the climate crisis.

Peatland drainage and clearance for palm oil plantation expansion in the Singkil-Bengkung lowlands (Photo: Nanang Sujana)
The edge of opportunity… Peatland drainage and clearance for palm oil plantation expansion in the Singkil-Bengkung lowlands (Photo: Nanang Sujana)

RAN is demanding that companies caught contributing to this destruction stop buying palm oil sourced from the rogue mills identified, or financing the culprits processing and shipping illegal palm oil to the global market, until transparent and verifiable monitoring, traceability and compliance systems are established to ensure they are only sourcing truly responsible palm oil.

Conflict Palm Oil Cycle of Destruction

 

 

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