Last week, the media reported that Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio faced the risk of being banned from returning to Indonesia over his comments that the country’s palm oil plantations are destroying fragile ecosystems and endangering wildlife.
DiCaprio, in his capacity as an environmental campaigner and founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places, on March 29 had posted a picture of himself and local partners posing with Sumatran elephants. The post served to announce his foundation’s plan to establish a mega-fauna sanctuary in the Leuser Ecosystem. In the same post, he cited the “expansion of Palm Oil plantations” as “fragmenting the forest and cutting off key elephant migratory corridors.” In a separate Instagram post about endangered Sumatran orangutan, DiCaprio linked the clearing of forest to the need to “meet demand for Palm Oil,” thus pushing the orangutan “to the brink of extinction,”
Following his posts on social media, the Hollywood star faced deportation threats from Indonesia’s Director General (DG) of Immigration Ronny F Sompie on March 31. DiCaprio’s statements were said to “discredit the government and the interests of Indonesia.” The legal grounds for deportation would be violating the terms of his tourist visa by “creating public disturbances and harming the state’s interest.”
According to Eco Watch, DiCaprio’s team confirmed to them that deportation threats did not apply since DiCaprio had already left the country. But the issue of DiCaprio being barred from future entry lingered.
Following Sompie’s threat, Indonesia’s minister of the environment and forestry, Siti Nurbaya, on April 2 revealed that DiCaprio had been accompanied by one of her own officials during an excursion to see orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park. Nurbaya also commented that it was not “relevant to link the concerns conveyed by DiCaprio with immigration matters” as she had reviewed all the procedures related to DiCaprio’s visit to the national park and found nothing untoward in the film star’s conduct.
In an interview with foresthints.news on April 2, Nurbaya expressed her view that “DiCaprio’s concerns were both sincere and substantial, and that he has certainly acted in good faith.” She added that “we,” presumably the ministry of environment and forestry, “largely share his concerns on the matter” and that she was open to working together in a “joint effort” whereby both sides can have their “concerns addressed, including those that pertain the Leuser Ecosystem.”
So, is this a case of diplomatic fence-mending or bureaucratic in-fighting between the immigration and forestry ministries?
Nurbaya’s interview, if it is the last word on the matter, is a cleverly crafted diplomatic response acknowledging that her government will take action in concert with DiCaprio and his foundation, whilst at the same time clarifying that the Indonesian government has no intention to put DiCaprio on an immigration blacklist. The call for joint action shares the burden of responsibility with foreign NGOs like DiCaprio’s and frees the government of the political pressure from the palm oil lobby and stridently nationalist politicians. The minister’s hints that DiCaprio will not after all be blacklisted are most certainly driven in part by unwanted international attention, more of which would most certainly follow a DiCaprio blacklist.
Nurbaya’s comments, particularly on the lack of any relationship between DiCaprio’s advocacy and his allegedly non-existent immigration rules violation, compromised the message of protest that has already been sent via the immigration department’s threat of deportation. Yet she also criticized DiCaprio for not taking time to obtain more comprehensive information about the “chronology of deforestation” and efforts that the Jokowi administration has made to “fix the problems” of the past decade. This is also a clever way of portraying the Jokowi’s administration as doing what it can to address deforestation within constraints, rather than under-addressing it.
According to Heru Santoso, the spokesman for the Directorate General for Immigration at the Law and Human Rights Ministry, companies or organizations that objected to DiCaprio’s comments have a right to request that immigration authorities bar him from re-entering Indonesia if “he keeps posting incitement or provocative statements on social media.” None have done so yet.
In softening the threat with diplomatic niceties, Nurbaya carried out a potentially face-saving measure but risks more activism on the part of DiCaprio and like-minded NGOs. In fact, DiCaprio had backed a Sumatra-based NGO, Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA) and included a link to a Change.org petition that urges Indonesian President Joko Widodo to cancel the Aceh provincial government’s Spatial Land Use Plan, “which would open Leuser’s forests up to clearing for logs, mining and oil palm,” according to a report by Mongabay.
So perhaps, the charge by Firman Subagyo from the Indonesian House of Representatives’ (DPR) Energy Commission that DiCaprio was really out to “take a shot at palm oil plantations, and wrap it with environmental issues,” though an unfair insinuation of DiCaprio’s sincerity, is not entirely without basis.
One palm oil businessman, Asmar Arsyad from Aceh, where the Leuser Ecosystem is located, was of the opinion that DiCaprio should (instead) “be campaigning for environmental conservation in the Amazon jungle that is being depleted by soy oil plantations.”
Regardless of whether it is labeled a politically-motivated act or pure environmental altruism, DiCaprio’s activism coupled with his cinematic fame certainly made his comments controversial. DiCaprio’s support for the Leuser Ecosystem coincided with his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, where he made philanthropic promises of $15 million for environmental projects, one of which was described as protecting the Leuser Ecosystem from the “invasive and destructive practices” of the palm oil industry.
So clearly this wasn’t a one-off incident. Nor was it the first incident of its type involving Hollywood stars and Indonesia either. The Indonesian government has used deportation threats before to protest and signal their displeasure when Hollywood celebrities, facilitated — unsurprisingly — by environmental NGOs, meddling in Indonesia’s domestic affairs. For instance, in 2013, Harrison Ford was threatened with deportation for “harassing state institutions” after interviewing the then-forestry minister about illegal logging.