When Petrus Kinggo was approached by South Korean palm oil giant, Korindo, with an offer to buy his land, the native Indonesian realized he had little chance to refuse. Korindo had already received the necessary concessions from the government to acquire the land. The only thing left was to persuade Kinggo to sell and he knew they weren’t about to take no for an answer. As the Elder of the Mandobo tribe, Kinggo and his ancestors have called the secluded forests of Papua, Indonesia home for centuries. The land is rich in nutrients and has abundantly provided for his people for generations. In exchange for their livelihood, the best Korindo could offer was just US$8 a hectare. Fair or not, Kinggo didn’t have much choice. The military gave him a dire warning that they couldn’t assure his safety if he refused and with the promise of new roads, clean water, free schooling and generators for him and his people, Kinggo decided to take his chances with Korindo. He should have known then that it was too good to be true.
About the only promise Korindo kept was clearing Kinggo’s land to make way for more palm production. Today, Korindo owns more land in Papua than any other entity and they have cleared nearly 60,000 hectares of it. That is an area equivalent in size to Chicago or Seoul. What’s worse, is that some of that area has been cleared through illegal burning. The Indonesian government has banned slash and burn practices due to the air pollution it creates and the very real threat of such fires growing out of control but that hasn’t stopped Korindo. A report by the Forensic Architecture group at Goldsmiths University in London and Greenpeace International found evidence of deliberate burning across Korindo’s land. Using satellite imagery, researchers determined that the speed, direction and pattern of a number of fires suggests they were intentional. Local villagers corroborated their findings, having seen Korindo employees pile up rows of wood just to set it all ablaze.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, Korindo somehow managed to keep their standing with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC has strict standards for their associates, requiring that a company’s products are sourced both ethically and sustainably to maintain their status. Over the years, the FSC has fielded many complaints regarding Korindo’s conduct. Some involved the company’s illegal burnings while others cried foul to their human right violations. Initially, the FSC tried to work with Korindo to address the allegations and make corrections but that all came to end earlier this month when the FSC finally terminated the relationship. The FSC’s international director said that they were unable to validate improvements in Korindo’s actions and that fueled the decision to sever ties.
Korindo maintains their innocence and says they are shocked by the FSC ruling. They insist that they are wholly committed to sustainability and human rights. The evidence to the contrary though is overwhelming. Unable to hide behind the façade of the FSC’s stainability status, Korindo has finally shown their true colors. Now their story can serve as a lesson learned. We cannot let other companies take the same advantage. Commitment to sustainability requires action not just empty promises.