Palm oil giant Sinar Mas admits breaking law by clearing peatland

| 11th August 2010
The clearing of peatland - shown here close to Lake Sentarum National Park, Indonesia - releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases (© Rante/Greenpeace)
Indonesia's largest palm oil and pulp company started clearing land for palm oil plantations before it had received permits or made conservation assessments. Tom Levitt reports

A major international supplier of palm oil has admitted destroying carbon-rich peatland and clearing land before identifying whether it was important orang-utan habitat.

The Sinar Mas group, which has supplied palm oil to Nestlé, Kraft and Unilever, claimed an independent audit of its operations showed it did not destroy peatland or forests of high conservation value.

However, the audit itself, commissioned under pressure from one-time Sinar Mas customer, Unilever, says the company broke Indonesian law as recently as this year by clearing peatland and also starting land clearance before an assessment had been made of its conservation value.

Degraded forests used by orang-utans

The group also claims that it develops plantations on degraded land, and that degradation occurred before they started using the land, and as such it is not responsible for destroying orang-utan habitats. Yet the independent audit says orang-utans appear to 'easily adapt to disturbances and can well survive in degraded forests'.

Earlier this month a study published in the journal of the Royal Society said degraded lands in southeast Asia remain important habitat for 75 per cent of primary rainforest species.

Speaking at a press briefing, organised by PR company Bell Pottinger, which has previously represented the oil trader Trafigura, spokespeople for Sinar Mas defended the company, saying it still hoped to persuade customers like Unilever and Nestlé, who have stopped dealing with the company, to use them as a supplier again.

'There are obviously things done in the past and we acknowledge that. Going forward we are committed to conserving high conservation land,' said Peter Heng, managing director at GAR, which is part of the Sinar Mas group.

Company accused of greenwash

Greenpeace said the company could no longer be trusted and had failed in its attempt to 'greenwash its image'.

'We’ve repeatedly shown that Sinar Mas says one thing and does another,' said Greenpeace Southeast Asia Forest spokesperson Bustar Maitar. 'They destroy peatland and call it water management. They clear rainforests and say that they’re developing degraded land.
'Instead of acting on the findings of this audit, which conclusively prove Sinar Mas destroys rainforests and peatlands, they’ve tried to greenwash their image.'

Greenpeace urged other companies like the food giant Cargill to follow the example of Unilever and Nestlé and stop sourcing palm oil from Sinar Mas.

Useful links
Greenpeace report on Sinar Mas

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