Independent audit essential to learn truth about loss of HCS forest, says NGO

(foresthints.news) - Almost all of the forest stratified as high carbon stock (HCS forest) which predominates in a palm oil concession block belonging to PT PIP, a subsidiary of Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), has been lost.

Even though the size of the HCS forest which has disappeared in this concession block is relatively small, the loss of this forest most certainly should serve as a lesson and warning for all relevant stakeholders.

These points were conveyed by Greenomics Indonesia in its presentation at a discussion forum held at the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry (Feb 27). The discussion specifically touched on the case of the loss of HCS forest as pertains to the legal obligation of palm oil plantation companies to facilitate plasma plantation development.

This is the first news report to look at the loss of this HCS forest in relation to the fulfillment of the GAR subsidiary's legal obligation to facilitate the development of plantations for surrounding communities.

PT PIP’s palm oil concession, which spans an area of 20,000 hectares, is located in the regency of Kapuas Hulu, in the province of West Kalimantan. With reference to the 2014 plantation act, the company is required to facilitate in developing community plantations measuring at least 20% of the total plantation area managed by the company.

Loss of HCS forest

The palm oil concession for the block in which this lost HCS forest is situated was lawfully excluded from PT PIP’s Land Cultivation Rights Title (HGU) and granted to the local communities living around the concession as part of the company's legal obligation to facilitate plasma plantation development.

“Don't let plasma plantation development be used as a scapegoat for the loss of the HCS forest,” Vanda Mutia Dewi, Greenomics Indonesia Executive Director, asserted at the ministry's discussion forum.

Greenomics, using two Google Earth images (2013), showed an example of an expanse of HCS forest located in the PT PIP plasma concession which has vanished. There had been no significant change in the landcover of the HCS forest by early 2015, after being verified by USGS Landsat 8 images on a time series basis.

“The areas that Greenomics has indicated have been designated by the local government as plasma areas since 2012,” Anita Neville, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at GAR, stated in a written response to foresthints.news (Mar 1).

GAR declared a zero-deforestation policy in early February 2011 which formed part of its “Forest Conservation Policy”. In fact, this was the first such declaration made in the palm oil sector. Greenpeace along with The Forest Trust (TFT) were two of the key players behind this declaration.

In her explanation, Anita also made the following claim. “Following consultations with the communities around the PT PIP concession, they indicated that they were in favor of plasma development. As such, planting began in mid-2016 and 401 hectares had been planted as of December, 2016. Greenpeace and TFT were also notified prior to this development and even sent teams to the site.”

The explanation from GAR also included a map indicating the distribution of lost HCS forest in 2015 and 2016 in one of the PT PIP concession blocks which had been allocated for plasma plantation development. Over these two years, according to GAR, nearly 300 hectares of HCS forest were lost in this plasma concession.

The expanse of HCS forest illustrated by the two Google Earth images above also formed part of the lost HCS forest as demonstrated by the GAR map.

Anita pointed out, by referring to the HCS internal monitoring via satellite images and continuous field groundtruthing, that there are indications of losses of HCS forest in identified patches (according to a baseline agreed to between GAR-TFT-Greenpeace) within the plasma concession.

Not always preceded by forest fires

Anita continued her explanation, declaring “we also believe that what appears to be clearing of the HCS forest is actually the result of forest fires which spread to the area in 2015.” However, according to data provided by GAR, approximately only 12 hectares were affected by the 2015 forest fires.

Greenomics went on to present another example of cleared HCS forest in one part of the PT PIP plasma concession concerned, as depicted by the following USGS LandsatLook image, which was later verified by a USGS Landsat 8 image, dated 6 February 2015.

“This image (seen above) proves that the clearing of HCS forest is not always preceded by the occurrence of forest fires. The USGS LandsatLook image clearly demonstrates that the HCS forest was cleared prior to any forest fires,” Vanda affirmed.

Lessons learned

Greenomics used the opportunity to remind GAR that the loss of HCS forest in the PT PIP plasma concession means that GAR cannot simply wash its hands of the matter, considering that it is bound by a legal obligation to facilitate the development of a plasma plantation there.

“GAR needs to ensure that a thorough independent audit is performed on the loss of HCS forest in the PT PIP plasma concession. This will assure the public that some lessons were learned from this case,” Vanda asserted.

The lessons learned, she added, are essential for the relevant stakeholders because of the link between the legal requirement of companies to facilitate community plantation development and the commitments made by a number of palm oil giants to protecting HCS forest.

GAR stated that the HCS and High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) areas which they have identified cover an area of 67,000 hectares, more or less the size of Singapore, the country where GAR has its headquarters.