Barred from Indonesia for working in support of president’s efforts to stop deforestation

Posted by John Sauven — 17 October 2011 at 2:35pm - Comments
Sumatran elephant
All rights reserved. Credit: Ulet Infansasti/Greenpeace
If deforestation isn't halted in Indonesia, Sumatran elephants face an uncertain future

I’ve been working with Greenpeace for more than 20 years and until now I had never been deported from any country. Until last week, that is, when I tried to enter Indonesia to spend time with our staff in Jakarta in support of their work against deforestation.

During my visit, I was due to meet with a number of government officials, the UK ambassador, and one of the country’s largest palm oil producers. I was also planning to bear witness to the deforestation caused by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) in Sumatra for myself.

I had the correct visa, issued from the Indonesian embassy in London, but apparently that doesn’t count for much when you are part of an organisation fighting against companies who have powerful connections in government. After getting off the plane in Jakarta, I arrived at immigration and was informed I am on a ‘red list’ and banned from the country. No official explanation was provided.

The day after I received my business visa from the Indonesian embassy in London, the warning bells started to ring. Articles in the Indonesian media suggested I had already tried - and failed - to gain entry to the country for a Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) conference on deforestation. During the conference, Indonesian President Yudhoyono pledged to prioritise rainforest protection for the rest of his presidency.

Greenpeace supports President Yudhoyono’s position and I am horrified to see his work undermined by the business-as-usual approach from companies like APP. It would have been an honour for me to hear his speech in person, but I had other engagements in London at the time which meant I was unable to travel to the country in time. I made no attempts to attend the conference, so why on earth was the Indonesian media reporting I had arrived and been refused entry when I hadn’t even left the UK? Where was this information coming from?

I made enquiries with the UK ambassador in Jakarta and the Indonesian ambassador in London. The UK embassy told me that they could get no official answer or explanation about my status. In London, the Indonesian embassy informed me that yes, I had the right visa, but that didn’t guarantee entry. No one could give me a clear response about whether I was on a ‘banned’ list. I have been a visitor to Indonesia many times and even got married in Bali. Why was this happening now?

I was making this visit to Indonesia to support Greenpeace’s work there and to spend time in a country that means a great deal to me. After extensive consultation with our office in Jakarta, we decided that I should proceed as planned. Our work against deforestation has reached a critical stage: we want to support the agenda of reform in the forest sector and want APP to make strong commitments to protect forests, just as their sister company within the Sinar Mas group, Golden Agri Resources (Gar), has already done.

Greenpeace welcomed these steps forward by Gar, steps that have now resulted in the company winning back contracts with companies like Nestlé.

APP can take similar actions to change its business, actions that can win back the trust of major international corporations that have stopped their orders with the company. These are companies like Mattel, Kraft, Adidas, Nestlé, Auchan, Carrefour, Tesco and many others. And let’s be clear, these international brands are suspending orders because of APP’s continued reliance on deforestation and their deeply flawed PR efforts to hide their tracks. APP is selling an image to the world that is built upon distortion and fabrication. The company has become an embarrassment for Indonesia.

I was told, informally, that I am a risk to Indonesia, that I could cause disruption in the country. I am a member of an organization that works peacefully in support of the Indonesian President’s stated commitments to stop deforestation. What message does it sent to the world when I am banned from the country? We see no evidence of the disruption caused by APP being stopped or impeded. The company is linked to corruption, illegal logging scandals and community conflicts but it appears to operate with impunity.

I still hope to return to visit our office in Indonesia one day soon - and in the meantime our efforts to stop deforestation continue.

Executive director of Greenpeace UK.

Follow Greenpeace UK