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Official found guilty of corruption after accepting $1.3M in bribes from dirty industry: 'This is only the tip of the iceberg'

Experts say this is not an isolated incident but likely represents more widespread corruption.

Bribes from palm oil companies

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The former head of an Indonesian land agency was found guilty of taking more than $1 million in bribes from palm oil companies, raising alarm about corruption in the industry, Mongabay reports.

What happened?

Indonesia's Riau province, located on the island of Sumatra, is known as the country's palm oil heartland, according to Mongabay. Riau's former land agency head, Muhammad Syahrir, was recently tried for corruption after taking bribes in exchange for renewing or expediting the renewal of palm oil plantation permits. The court found Syahrir guilty and issued a sentence of 12 years in prison plus fines of $1.5 million.

Syahrir was judged to have taken bribes amounting to $1.38 million from several palm oil companies during his time leading the Riau land office and in his previous position working for the North Maluku provincial land office. 

Why is this corruption case concerning?

Experts say this is not an isolated incident but likely represents more widespread corruption.

"This case involves [the land agencies in] Riau and North Maluku," Raynaldo Sembiring, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), told Mongabay. "And there's a likelihood that it's also happening in other regions. So this is only the tip of the iceberg."

This kind of corruption has already had devastating effects on the environment. Earlier this year, palm oil tycoon Surya Darmadi was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $2.6 billion, in part for giving $200,000 to former Riau Province Governor Annas Maamun, Al Jazeera reported. Darmadi was judged to have given Maamun the money in exchange for amending forestry regulations to allow him to convert more than 90,000 acres of forest into palm oil estates. This scheme and others ultimately led to the deforestation of thousands of acres of protected land. 

In the past 40 years, Sumatra has lost more than half of its forests, primarily due to palm oil and pulp plantations, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The clearing of forests to accommodate these plantations has caused a number of environmental impacts, including loss of critical habitat for endangered species, air pollution as forests are cleared through burning, soil and water pollution, soil erosion, and rising temperatures. Some of the most impacted animals include orangutans, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran tigers, of which about only 400 still exist.

What can I do to help with palm oil corruption? 

Palm oil is used in many everyday items like food products, detergents, and cosmetics. More than half of all packaged products Americans purchase contain palm oil, reports the WWF.

One of the most important things you can do to help with the palm oil problem is to be a conscious consumer. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) creates standards for sustainable palm oil production and certifies growers and processors. So far, about 20 percent of all palm oil is certified by the organization. When you shop, look for the RSPO logo. 

Many organizations have created guides to help consumers choose more sustainably. For instance, this page from Woodland Park Zoo lists chocolate companies that are members of RSPO. The zoo also provides a letter template to make it easier for consumers to contact companies and ask them to join RSPO. 

You can also download the PalmOil Scan App, which lets you scan barcodes while you shop to determine whether the company you're about to buy from is committed to sustainable palm oil.

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