EXCLUSIVE: Is the BBC now Norway’s new ‘voice’ in Indonesia?

Palm Oil Monitor has obtained documents being circulated by the BBC in Indonesia that appear to be aimed at undermining the smallholder sector in Indonesia.

BBC Media Action – the ‘charity arm’ of the UK’s public broadcaster – has been circulating the documents in conjunction with the support of the Norwegian Government and in conjunction with the Gecko Project.

The documentation is part of a survey that seeks to gather information on financial and accounting arrangements used by palm oil firms as part of their smallholder joint operations, also known as plasma schemes.

From our perspective, the survey appears simply to be a way of fishing for dirt on

on palm oil farmers.

Indonesia’s plasma plantation system involves nucleus estates run by plantation companies, and contracted smallholders that supply to the centralised estate. It was a system that was introduced in 1987 by the World Bank.

The plasma system – although it sounds simple – is quite complex from a taxation and accounting perspective. There are two types of plasma schemes, for example. They have different procedures for financing and loan arrangements; different obligations between farmers, estates and banks; different ways of accounting for losses and deductions when arrangements change.

It’s the kind of system that is complex and at times ambiguous – and therefore an easy target for allegations of malfeasance, corruption or exploitation.

It’s not surprising, then, that a BBC questionnaire that POM has obtained concentrates almost entirely on the financial and accounting arrangements used by palm oil firms as part of their plasma schemes.

So, what’s the background to the survey and BBC’s activity in Indonesia?

Norway’s aid agency Norad renewed its funding for Norwegian International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI). A careful review of the NICFI funding documents reveal they have provided BBC Media Action with a grant of around USD2.3 million.

BBC Media Action now appears to be partnered with the Gecko Project and environmental media outlet Mongabay on this project. Gecko is an offshoot of Earthsight Investigations, and undertakes in-depth research on environmental governance.

BBC had previously received funding from NICFI between 2016 and 2020, “to build understanding of forest values and management challenges among the Indonesian public through television broadcast, mentoring and training.”

This project was known as Kembali ke Hutan – Return to the Forest. In 2020, the project  was described as follows:

“Through … Kembali Ke Hutan (Return to the Forest), we are creating engaging digital and TV programming focused on the management of Indonesia’s forests, and the economic and environmental implications of the country’s fast-paced development … By making it cool to care about their forests, we hope to encourage a generation of young Indonesians to actively engage their leaders on sustainable development issues.”

But the question that needs to be asked of the BBC is what its objectives actually are right now: Are they trying to change the minds of young Indonesians about the corruption links between smallholders, companies and the government?

What the BBC and Norway may not have realised is that Indonesians already do care about the environment and corruption – but not in the way they might think.

Recently the Basel Governance Institute published a survey on Indonesians’ thoughts on environmental governance. Here are some key findings.

Indonesians harbour great reservations about corruption levels generally, high levels of corruption in the natural resource sector specifically, and worsening environmental degradation.

Yet despite this, two thirds of respondents say they believe that some types of exploitation (palm oil, rubber) are not harmful to the environment.

Moreover, even when environmental degradation is clearly the result of natural resource exploitation, a majority believes that this is acceptable because of the economic benefits that it brings.

It is unsurprising, then, that a full three quarters (75.6%) of participants believe the government can be trusted to be a steward of the environment.

What also isn’t surprising in this context is that the current government’s initiatives on reducing levels of deforestation have been successful and largely supported by the populace.

There is clearly a significant gap between what Norway – and its proxy groups – think is right for Indonesia, and what Indonesians actually want for themselves.

POM has previously pointed out that Norway’s own internal review of its NICFI programs was scathing towards its approach to poverty:

The evaluation finds that the majority of the measures do not have a conscious relationship to how the measures affect vulnerable groups and the level of poverty locally, nationally or globally.”

Our prediction here is simple.

BBC will co-publish an ‘exposé’ on plasma schemes. It will use a small number of examples to argue that plantation companies are undermining plasma scheme participants and smallholders across Indonesia.  It will largely ignore the wealth of information on the benefits that participating in plasma schemes have provided to many farmers over the decades, including securing secure land titling and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

Why will the BBC do this? Because that’s what its donors in Norway are paying it to do.

Is it any surprise that Indonesia has now turned its back on Norway’s paternalistic approach to its people and the environment?