This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
In a blow to the millions of people affected by the unsustainable palm oil industry, the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information (Kominfo) launched its #SawitBaik (#GoodPalmOil) campaign on Sept. 16. The Kominfo launched the Twitter account @SawitBaikID alongside the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Agency (BPDPKS) and hundreds of social media users paid to support the campaign.
The launch occurred just as forest fires across Indonesia reached their peak, which in some areas were caused by fires ignited to clear land for palm oil plantations.
Indonesia’s palm oil industry was under the spotlight when this year’s forest fires began. Abnormalities in patterns of scorched land that seemed to conveniently avoid palm oil plantations raised suspicion. As expressed by Tito Karnavian, Chief of Indonesian Police: “We saw from a helicopter that the land used for crop cultivation, both palm oil and other crops, had barely been touched by the fire,” he told local media.
As a monoculture crop, palm oil is not environmentally-friendly, but it plays an important role in Indonesia’s economy, which is why the government supports it. Many netizens felt the pro-palm oil campaign was insensitive to the ongoing forest fire and haze disasters.
President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has admitted that his administration had been negligent in handling the crisis. “We don’t need to hold the same meeting every year. We automatically know that we must be prepared every dry season. We’ve been neglectful and allowed the fires to spread,” Jokowi said on Sept. 17 on a visit to Riau, a province where the fires are burning most intensely.
But the government continues to shed a positive light on the palm oil industry.
“This national movement will create positive support from the public on social media, clarify any negative thoughts surrounding palm oil, foster love for the plant, and create active participation in the campaign,” the description of the @SawitBaikID reads.
Earlier this week, the Kominfo even hosted an “Influencer meeting and social media launch” for #SawitBaik. Septriana Tangkary, a Kominfo official, said that influencers are expected to spread positive sentiment around the pro-palm oil campaign and promote it as one of Indonesian economy’s strengths.
“Palm oil was one of the top five contributors to the strength of Indonesia’s currency in 2017,” Tangkary said.
Meanwhile, Mukhamad Misbakhun, a member of the Indonesian People’s House of Representatives, said the campaign’s merit is a matter of opinion. He believes that negative sentiments towards palm oil are supported by foreign entities in an effort to undermine Indonesian commodities, and so it must be fought through social media.
“Social media can help spread positive things about palm oil,” Misbakhun said at the influencer meeting. “I am glad that the Kominfo launched the #SawitBaik campaign. Since Indonesia has one of the highest number of social media users in the world, public opinion can be swayed online.”
Misbakhun is aware that people are reluctant to support the palm oil industry because it leads to deforestation and forest fires, and destroys ecosystems and peatlands, but he said restricting palm oil cultivation can affect the market and the lives of ordinary people trying to make a living.
“The impact of such negative campaigns is the price of the raw product drops, which affects the farmers,” Misbakhun said.
Pro-palm oil campaigns are not only led by the Kominfo. The Indonesian Drug and Food Agency (BPOM) has also banned the distribution of products labelled “Palm Oil-free” since August.
“We have built agreements and commitments with various stakeholders to maintain the competitiveness of the palm oil industry, as well as to stop the use of the 'Palm Oil Free' label, which reduces the competitiveness of the industry,” said Penny Lukito, head of the BPOM.
Between 2015 and 2017, Indonesia lost 1.6 million hectares of land to farming. Of this, 19 percent were lost to palm oil plantations. Indonesia currently has allocated over 14 million hectares of land to palm oil cultivation, according to data from the Ministry of Farming, with a target of producing 40 million tonnes by 2020.
According to the organisation Sawit Watch, the government has always had difficulty admitting the links between land-clearing for palm oil cultivation and forest fires. Maryo Sanudin from Sawit Watch said he often conducts fact-finding projects and field work related to the expansion of palm oil plantations and that the government has accused his organisation of conducting a smear campaign.
Watch VICE's documentary about Indonesia's palm oil industry:
The government believes it has become the target of smear campaigns by environmental activists and the European Union. The EU agreed to ratify the "Report on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Promotion of the use of Energy from Renewable Sources" in early 2018. Through this proposal, EU politicians are looking to limit and ban the use of fuels and food products derived from climate change-causing sources. The use of crude palm oil as a biofuel will be significantly limited by 2023, and phased out completely by 2030. In September, the EU applied a duty of 8-18 percent on diesel fuel imports.
This was bad news for Indonesia, as a majority of palm oil exports went to EU member countries. Jokowi’s administration has decried the proposal as discriminatory and only beneficial to EU members. The Indonesian government is now preparing to appeal the EU decision to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Andi Patinaware from Sawit believes the EU decision to phase out palm oil was a form of criticism meant to improve Indonesia’s unsustainable methods of palm oil cultivation. “Apart from the environmental issues, conflict and land redistribution must also be addressed, as they too are a part of the palm oil cultivation process,” Patinaware told VICE.
The Indonesian government had issued a moratorium on the expansion of farmland for palm oil cultivation in the previous administration and joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. Still, activists say that’s not enough.
Jokowi’s administration continues this moratorium, albeit inconsistently, but the results are difficult to measure because of a lack of monitoring and evaluation. According to Greenpeace data from 2017, 2.7 million hectares of land have been approved for palm oil cultivation despite the moratorium.
Meanwhile, the RSPO, which aims to put an end to human rights violations in the palm oil industry, deforestation, and land conversion, has been widely labelled as ineffective in addressing the myriad of problems between corporations and citizens regarding the palm oil industry.
Instead of addressing the many issues that plague the industry, the Indonesian government is turning away from facts and instead chose to launch a campaign that is not only poorly-timed, but also ignorant.
Until the Indonesian government gets its facts straight on the environmental impacts of its current methods of palm oil cultivation, it should probably refrain from preaching about how great palm oil is. As long as the multitude of problems persist, the palm oil industry will remain tainted.