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Investigations: Kiwi’s links to threat to crucial rainforest in West Papua

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Newsroom Special Investigation: An Auckland property developer is involved in a company linked to carrying out deforestation in Indonesia, where virgin rainforest is being bulldozed to grow palm oil plantations.  Watch Melanie Reid’s video story above.

From above, the satellite image shows two insignificant dark-coloured shapes, like a couple of missing puzzle pieces in a flat sea of green. But on the ground, they represent devastation.

This innocuous picture illustrates the beginning of what is earmarked to become the world’s largest palm oil plantation, replacing one of the last remaining rainforests on earth.

Two years ago, the Tanah Merah megaproject began clearing just 230 hectares in Papua, the Indonesian controlled half of New Guinea (the other half of the island is Papua New Guinea).

That relatively small land area was just a warning of what is predicted to come: 270,000 hectares have been allocated to the project, an area ten times the size of Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges.

After halting work due to alleged non-payment of staff salaries, in March this year the bulldozers arrived again and forest clearing resumed. This can be seen using near-real time satellite imagery on Nusantara-Atlas.org – the newly felled sections of rainforest are in pink.

The project is divided into seven concessions – parcels of land – of around 40,000 hectares each in Boven Digoel, a regency in Papua’s southeast.

Documents obtained by Newsroom show three of those seven concessions are controlled by a company called Digoel Agri Group, whose majority shareholder is listed as a New Zealander.

(Read the full response from Digoel Agri Group here.)

Environmental experts say the Tanah Merah project is a sign of things to come and if this entire forest is razed it will be catastrophic – hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon will be released, contributing to the world’s failure to stay under two degrees Celsius of warming.

So why, when we face a climate emergency of biblical proportions, is an Auckland property developer involved in the felling of some of the world’s most diverse, intact, old-growth forest?

The Kiwi tree defender

Tanah Merah is just one of a number projects on the island involving dozens of players from around the world, including the Middle East, Korea and Malaysia, who are already turning the varied flora into monocrop forests of palm oil trees.

But a network of individuals and organisations is attempting to shine a spotlight on what’s going on in Papua to prevent what they say is an environmental and human rights calamity.

One of those is Grant Rosoman. Tall, lean and 60 years old, he looks more university professor than tree-hugger, despite dedicating his life to protecting tropical forests and their inhabitants.

Grant Rosoman. Photo: Supplied

 In the late 1980s and early 1990s he worked to halt the importation of kwila coming from Indigenous communities in Malaysia, at one point chaining himself to a log at a Christchurch timber yard. His campaigning succeeded.

“We managed to drop imports down to a fifth of what they were and to raise awareness of the issue. Because people had no idea their decking was coming from the destruction of people’s lives and forests. And it’s a bit the same with Papua.”

As a senior adviser to Greenpeace International, he tells Newsroom he is shocked a fellow New Zealander is involved in this – and warns the impact of losing a forest this size during a climate crisis will be catastrophic.

The Rainbow Warrior III sailing on the Boven Digul River in Papua. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

“If we lose this forest then we don’t survive climate change. That’s how important it is for everyone.”

He says all New Zealanders should be concerned about what’s going on over there.

“This is the first time I have come across a New Zealander investing in tropical rainforest destruction.”

But, isn’t it a bit rich for someone from Aotearoa New Zealand – a country that has systematically wiped out two thirds of its native forest in favour of naked rolling landscape covered in cows and a tidal wave of urban housing – to pass judgment when another country seeks to make money from its primary resources?

“We in Aotearoa made the mistake of clearing most of our lowland forest and now there are massive very costly national and local programmes to restore the forest that has been lost. We don’t want Papua to make the same mistake, especially for the local customary communities that are so reliant on and spiritually tied to their forests. The local communities are telling us this,” says Rosoman, who adds that they instead support local enterprises that protect the forest but also generate an income, such as sago, medicinal plants and spices, and ecotourism.

“Destroying the forests of Papua for the benefit a few wealthy Indonesian elites or foreign investors like Neville Mahon is not development.”

Destruction of virgin peatland rainforest by the Tanah Merah logging and palm oil project in Papua. The photos show new road networks leading into vast areas of untouched, virgin rainforest, indicating where operations are likely to expand. Photo: Greenpeace

Atlas of destruction

New Guinea’s landscape is extraordinary. Mangroves and peat swamps sit alongside tropical alpine grasslands and lush forests: a recently released study in Nature journal proclaims it as “the most floristically diverse island in the world”, home to more than 13,000 species of plants.

It is the world’s largest tropical island, with 83% of Indonesian New Guinea supporting old-growth forest, and the third largest rainforest after the Amazon and Congo.

But Indonesia, the fourth largest emitter of carbon, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions and by far the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, is running out of arable land to grow the fruit.

Members of the Indigenous Auyu community in their ancestral forest in Boven Digoel, Papua. Photo: Nanang Sujana for The Gecko Project/Earthsight

The thing about palm forests is they have a shelf life – after 25 to 30 years these vast monocrops begin to fail because the soil no longer holds up.

In the last few decades around 21 million hectares of Indonesian land has been relinquished to plantation companies. To put that in perspective, Aotearoa New Zealand’s landmass totals 26.8 million hectares.

Used in everything from biscuits and shampoo to biofuel and supplementary feed for Kiwi cows, palm oil made the Southeast Asian country $23 billion last year – and Papua is Indonesia’s final frontier for this moneymaker.

After laying waste to millions of hectares of primary forest in Borneo and Sumatra, this island is the last remaining opportunity to exploit the primary forest for timber and to grow colossal tracts of palm oil monocrops to feed the demand for the ubiquitous product.

Deforestation accounts for the bulk of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions, and this month Indonesia cancelled an agreement it had with Norway to halt deforestation in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental protection incentives.

Full article here: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/dreams-dollars-and-destruction-of-a-rainforest

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