Green Echoes #11 - Investigating Supply Chains

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

After a short break, we have a very special issue for you this week, with an interview from the cross-border team of journalists that just published a year-long mammoth investigation on palm oil.

Philip Jacobson, an editor with Mongabay and Tom Johnson, an editor at The Gecko Project, shared these insights into how they were able to undertake and produce such an ambitious investigation. For brevity, we've shortened this interview in this newsletter, but you can read the full version on our website.

What were some challenges you faced during the investigation, and were you able to overcome them?

The transnational nature of the “consultancy” payment at the center of our investigation made it a difficult nut to crack. It therefore made sense to form a transnational team of journalists to investigate the payment. The Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa were natural partners, as they were able to obtain a great deal of information via their own research and interviews that we wouldn’t have been able to get ourselves. And then the collaboration with Al Jazeera came about when we found out they were looking Korean investors operating in Papua. 

One of our biggest challenges was how to report in the interior of Papua. Through partnering with skilled, experienced Indonesian reporters and photographers, and with Al Jazeera, our reporting team was able to make several trips to Papua over the course of a year. We interviewed Indigenous people in villages and workers in oil palm plantations near Indonesia’s border with Papua New Guinea, and sat down with local politicians and activists in Merauke town, the capital of the district where Korindo’s plantations are concentrated. Through all that, we were able to build a picture of how Korindo’s operations had affected local communities and the role that Kim Nam Ku, a central character in the piece, had played.

Any advice for other journalists or publications looking to embark on a similar, cross-border investigation?

An investigation that starts with a company’s financial statements, as ours did, might not seem like the stuff of Hollywood drama. But we were confident that if we could get a sense of the people behind this payment and the places it affected, we could tell a gripping story.

It’s also worth pointing out that the financial statements of the Singaporean shell company through which Korindo made the payment are publicly available under Singaporean law. We also made use of the Indonesian government’s corporate registry and documents from a South Korean court judgement against Korindo’s founder. There’s a lot of information floating around in the public domain that journalists can take advantage of. For more on that, check out this guide on identifying corruption red flags in Indonesian land deals.

Are there plans to do follow-up reporting around this topic, or connected angles, or plans to otherwise build or expand this investigation and its impact?

There certainly does appear to be more to the story of the “consultancy” payment than even we were unable to uncover over the course of a year, so we may continue to pull on some of those threads. More broadly, Korindo controls more land in Papua than any other company, so it will continue to be a newsworthy focus for us. 

We’re still reporting on the impacts of plantations and big investments in Papua more generally, too. It’s an incredibly important region for rainforests, biodiversity, Indigenous culture and rights, but goes under-reported because of the difficulties in accessing it. We’ve developed connections, sources and leads so will definitely be working on stories there for the foreseeable future.

In Focus: Palm Oil Supply Chain Investigations

Palm oil is one of the widest traded commodities in the world and the most consumed food oil. Increasingly, it's also being used as a biofuel. 

In the early 2000s, the major importers of Asian palm oil were European countries and the United States. But in the past decade, this has changed dramatically, with India, Pakistan, and China now major importers. The Philippines, Japan, and Bangladesh are also growing domestic markets. Reporting on these supply chains, though, has been limited. Here are some data sources to help identify palm oil stories.

  • Tridge has an excellent data dashboard on palm oil trade, including trends for countries around the world. 

  • Global Forest Watch has several useful datasets that allow you to analyze oil palm concessions, certification, land ownership, and environmental impacts, allowing you to link source or business data to on-the-ground impacts.

  • Trace.Earth has a commodity tracking tool which includes palm oil - here's the chart for Indonesia, which shows the main corporations involved in the supply chain.

  • Due to its global prominence, there's a lot of academic research into palm oil being published that can have rich, underutilized field data - and researchers are often willing to share data. Use Research Gate or Google Scholar to find papers.

It's worth noting that while the focus here is on palm oil, these tactics and tools can be used to find investigative stories on other cross-border commodities, too, such as timber, soy, and bananas. In fact, it is often the same companies investing, trading, or transporting all these goods.

Best reporting from Asia

This piece in Kontinentalist by Peiying Loh masterfully uses visuals, data, and maps to tell a story about how climate change and infrastructure development is transforming fishing, rice farming, and putting food security at risk for those living along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

This longform feature in TNI Longreads explores, in-depth, the role of women and gender in fishing communities in Indonesia. It focuses on how the decisions they make impact food sovereignty, while also looking at growing concerns and changes due to massive coastal infrastructure development.

Worth listening to: Sustainable Asia has just released their latest podcast, this one focusing on efforts to address the plastic waste crisis on the Indonesian island of Bali.

For Rappler, Kathleen Lei Limayo reports on how Filipino farmers and fisherfolk are vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, connecting a public health concern with climate change.

Latest Resources and Events

Webinar: Beyond Plastic and the Break Free From Plastic coalition are holding two reporters-only press briefings this month. Register here.

  • 15 July - Plastics Policy in the Age of COVID

  • 29 July - Microplastics In Our Air, Our Water, and Us

A new resource from Scientific Data and the United States Geological Society - a searchable directory of accessible, peer-reviewed journal articles on fish and climate change

The FAO's report on the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 is out, which updated data on aquaculture production, global capture from fisheries, the state of fisheries management, and much more.

Also out - UNODC 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report. It includes their first assessment of trends, including evidence that while elephant and rhinoceroses poaching has declined, the amount of pangolin scales seized has increased 10-fold.

Opportunity: Clean Energy Wire accepting applications for cross-border projects, in which  journalists collaborate to cover stories on the green recovery. Deadline Sept 1.

That's all for this week. We have another Q&A coming soon, with Chinese journalist Qiu Jiaqiu, who led an investigation into cross-border timber trade between China and Papua New Guinea. Let us know if you have questions or suggestions for another Q&A.

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

PS. Did you know we have a Environmental Reporting Collective slack? Join to connect and, potentially, collaborate with journalists from around the world.

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a group of reporters and editors across Asia and elsewhere, working together to rethink how environmental journalism is done. We support collaborative journalism projects that start new conversations on how our societies impact our planet. Such stories are complex and expensive. That’s why they require new approaches to research, reporting, editing and distribution.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. You can also let us know what you would like to see in this newsletter by responding to this email.