Palm oil firms depriving tribes of millions of dollars

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: BBC, The Gecko Project, and Mongabay

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-05-23

Language: English

Authors: Data team: Tom Johnson, Tom Walker, Philip Jacobson, Aghnia Adzkia, and Thibi (a data and graphics consultancy).

Reporting team (Mongabay): Ari Anggara, Aseanty Pahlevi, Elviza Diana, Jaka Hendra Baittri, Philip Jacobson, Suryadi, Taufik Wijaya, Yitno Suprapto, Yusie Marie.

Reporting team (The Gecko Project): Gilang Parahita, Ian Morse, Margareth Aritonang, Rio Tuasikal, Safrin La Batu, Tom Johnson, Tom Walker.

Reporting team (BBC): Aghnia Adzkia, Astudestra Ajengrastri, Haryo Wirawan, Muhammad Irham, Rebecca Henschke.

Independent reporters: Boris Pasaribu, Eko Nurcahyono, Fatahur Rahman, Masrani Tran, Petrus Suwito.


The BBC, Gecko Project and Mongabay teams’ combined bios would exceed 100 words, but please contact nominator Erik Hoffner (erik@mongabay.com) to receive that information separately.

Project description:

Buy something in a supermarket and there’s a good chance it will contain palm oil. Follow it back through the supply chain and eventually you’ll find an oil palm tree, likely in Indonesia. But the companies that sell it to major firms like Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s and Mondelēz are depriving Indigenous communities – on whose land much palm oil is produced – of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of income, by not conforming with legally mandated profit sharing regulations, a joint BBC/Gecko Project/Mongabay investigation found, by gathering and analyzing all the available data.

Impact reached:

Two days after the investigation was published, the national government announced a major audit of the palm oil sector. This involves the Attorney General’s Office and “at least 80 BPKP auditors” from 29 provinces. “We have to audit all these oil palm plantations to find out how large they are and how much plasma they have,” senior Cabinet minister Luhut Pandjaitan told media outlets. Multiple concerns drove the decision, including a recent scandal over companies evading export restrictions, but also the issue at the heart of the investigation: the exploitation of local communities. Luhut told the media: “If a company doesn’t provide plasma (palm oil profits)…is that fair?”

Plasma problems were raised in parliament several times afterward: one called for government focus on it, calling it a “fundamental issue” that was causing land conflicts. Industry association Gapki described it as an “urgent” problem, while the Association of District Plantation Agencies called for companies to “fully realise their obligations regarding providing 20% plasma for the community.” The main oil palm smallholders’ organisation used it to call for a government review of the scheme through which companies provide plasma.

We documented 38 public statements highlighting problems with plasma and calling for action from provincial and district-level officials from 13 administrations across 9 provinces, and 12 steps taken by provincial and district governments, including parliamentary ‘special committees’ to investigate plasma, and threats to revoke licenses of companies that refused to provide plasma.

The report sparked a petition calling for Mondelez to stop sourcing palm oil from Golden Agri-Resources, one of the plantation companies named in the article, with more than 128,000 signatures. Four major consumer goods companies committed to determining and mitigating their exposure to problems with plasma.

The investigation text received over 562,000 views across the three media outlets’ platforms.

Techniques/technologies used:

This was probably the first attempt to investigate problems with companies sharing plasma (palm oil profits) with communities on a national scale in Indonesia. It therefore involved collecting and analysing data from government, corporations and the media, and triangulating this with data obtained from our field reporting in nine provinces across Indonesia’s three largest islands. We collated data from multiple palm oil companies’ websites and public reporting, cross-referenced this with data auto-transcribed from dozens of government reports in PDF format, extracted from consumer goods firms’ public disclosures, and collated from in-depth open-source research into court records, companies’ corporate structures, academic research, NGO reports and media articles. Tools used included Tabula, OpenRefine and Google Sheets.

We then built a single dataset bringing this together, which served as a foundation for the investigation, allowing us to target our field reporting at 27 companies where there was compelling evidence of problems, and identify trends and common threads that informed our reporting. We also used the dataset to create visualisations showing the spread of plasma-related protests across Indonesia over time, and the scale of major consumer goods firms’ exposure to this problem. (We used DataWrapper and Flourish to create the charts and visualisations.) We also used the data to create animations simplifying the complex supply chain links between our case studies and companies such as Unilever and Nestle.

We also analysed satellite imagery to show when companies had planted oil palms and georeference the plasma area owned by Indigenous people and villagers. Finally, we built a separate dataset of profits villagers were earning from partnership plasma schemes, which we collected over a three-year period through field reporting in ten communities across five provinces, and compared this to national and international poverty lines as well as academic research on profits that plantations typically generate.

Context about the project:

– Historically there is little to no transparency provided by the palm oil industry, in Indonesia or elsewhere: government data is widely acknowledged to be flawed and contradictory.
– Company structures are designed to avoid accountability: palm oil companies will operate under multiple names and set up shell companies to obscure the identity of parent companies
– Borneo and Sumatra are generally described as a ‘Wild West’ in these above regards, with huge problems of land grabbing, where companies gain illegal access to tribal lands
– No central, agreed-upon map of palm oil concessions exists – so one will often see multiple overlapping claims
– Palm oil companies’ supply chains are deliberately murky — this makes it challenging to trace where palm oil that ends up in a consumer product is produced.
– Senior government figures are routinely involved in – and benefitting from – the palm oil industry
– The police are often hired by the industry as security guards, resulting in the local community and journalists facing threats that can’t be remedied by law enforcement
– The work is built on a database of more than 240 reported cases, which will be published in the coming weeks here, https://thegeckoproject.org/topics/plasma/

What can other journalists learn from this project?

– How to break down and make sense of vast amounts of complex data
– Cross-checking of government and company available data against promises and regulations
– Even when government data contains flaws, you can still use it to build or strengthen your story
– Organizing that analysis of the data can provide surprising revelations, as this project did
– Being open and transparent with consumer companies about our data can provide valuable insight
– Simplifying the data to bring the powerful, real life implications to light. Use case studies to bring that to life. In this case, it’s not just numbers, it’s a tribal community’s whole life.

Project links: