Trying to follow the money: Tracing investments to actual places in SE Asia

New mapping techniques sketch out some surprisingly opaque connections.
Is it already possible to “follow the money” from public companies’ investors to particular concession locations at a significant scale? Foto: wikiphoto

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In recent years, agricultural commodities have become increasingly popular with investors looking to diversify by expanding into emerging markets.

Palm oil, soy, maize and other “flex crops” (crops that can be used for multiple purposes, including food) have become especially popular.

But how well do investors and fund managers actually know about where their money is going? How precisely do they need to know? The answers to these questions are changing quickly.

Evaluating place-based risk has always been part of the due diligence process.

But as deforestation, land grabs and events like forest fires and haze have become increasingly part of public debates, place-based risk has become ever more finely grained.

Advocates for smallholder farmers and forest protection, aided by the proliferation of open data efforts and online mapping tools, are increasingly arguing that investors need to take place-based risk far more seriously.

This is a tricky issue, however.

Even though deforestation and land conflicts have long histories in commodity production, the opacity of production and trade networks generally made it difficult for investors to be too pushy in asking where their money was going – often, the economics led investors against asking hard questions about companies’ local impacts. This is starting to change.

As recent events in the forestry, rubber, sugar and other sectors suggest, companies and their investors are increasingly viewing place-based impacts through the framework of place-based financial risk.

In a recent study conducted as part of a wider investigation of economic choices and trade-offs for REDD+ in Asia for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), I looked at the extent to which it is possible to use publicly available data to trace investment dollars to specific locations in key Southeast Asian commodity sectors.

The results show, perhaps predictably, the significant challenges that currently confront efforts to link spatial with financial data.

But they also highlight a number of opportunities, and suggest that even in the current context, following the money is not always as hard as it might sound.


The study starts by examining the oil palm frontier on Indonesia’s outer islands.

A key landscape for the development of Indonesia’s so-called “green economy,” the outer islands have long been at the heart of the Indonesian economy. In recent years, as the oil palm sector has helped local governments maintain a significant degree of autonomy over economic development, oil palm concessions have emerged as a key governance challenge.

And since many oil palm concession areas contain large areas of locally claimed land and high-value forest – in Kalimantan alone, the ratio of oil palm concessions to oil palm plantation lands is roughly 10-to-1 (see study, pages 8-9) – private sector decisions about how to develop these areas have major impacts: economically, environmentally and politically.

The private sector can be disaggregated and spatialized by cross-referencing the names of companies that hold state land concessions with the names of companies that disclose information to their investors. As shown in the first map below, however, the sector has a relatively low degree of this type of transparency: of the 1220 oil palm concessions that appear in currently available data for Kalimantan, only 11 are held by companies whose names appeared in research we commissioned on investment in publicly listed companies. This shows the relative difficulty of “following the money” to particular locations – at least without more information.

Laos Dwyer 1

Only 11 of 1220 publicly listed oil palm concessions in Kalimantan (shown in red) are held by public companies that appear in a CIFOR-commissioned research study on financing in the oil palm sector.

The relatively opaque picture presented above starts to change, however, with a bit of additional research.

The World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch Commodities team, as part of a wider effort to create transparency in commodity sectors associated with deforestation, has begun to group concession-holding companies according to their owners; the result, shown in the next map, allows a significantly higher degree of cross-referencing – 152 out of 1220 concessions in Kalimantan, and 179 out of 1845 concessions nationally.gpvernance

This suggests that it is already possible to “follow the money” from public companies’ investors to particular concession locations at a significant scale.

With more research, or indeed with regulated disclosures of company relationships, much more is possible.

Laos Dwyer 2


Landscapes like the lower Mekong region present additional challenges when it comes to investment’s spatial transparency. These include data quality issues and language biases in data sources. While these impose limits in the short term, they also offer important areas for policy engagement and collaborative research.

A key data-related challenge in the lower Mekong region is that only Cambodia has a concession inventory that contains the type of information shown above: polygons with company names.

In Laos, point data on land concessions is available, but the absence of company names precludes the possibility of linking particular concessions to particular companies without additional research (see map below).

Moreover, the available financial data is often not disaggregated by country, posing a problem when companies (as with many Vietnamese rubber companies) work in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam simultaneously.

Laos Dwyer 3

In Myanmar, the data is even thinner. Aggregate statistics point to extensive state land allocations to agri-business investment, but unlike Cambodia and Laos, Myanmar does not currently have a national concession inventory.

One area that has unexpectedly revealed a degree of investment-related spatial transparency is Chinese state-backed investment in border region agribusiness.

While the degree of transparency is low – much lower than in Cambodia or even Laos, much less Indonesia – and independent research suggests that the impacts of this investment have done more harm than good, the fact that the Chinese government sees this investment as worthy of state-led transparency efforts provides an opening for dialogue and collaboration.

In the nearer term, a pair of recent cases promise to be bellwethers for the future of place-based risk, both in the Mekong region and more widely.

Global Witness’s campaign against two Vietnamese rubber companies highlighted the involvement of European investors in their commodity chains; discussions with at least one of these companies led to the creation last year of a land conflict mitigation mechanism for local communities.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s 2013 announcement of zero tolerance for land grabbing has brought spatial transparency of the sort described above to the forefront of its supply chain concerns.

With Thailand as one of Coke’s initial list of audit countries, the types of spatial transparency questions described above are likely to continue to occupy public debate.

Michael Dwyer is a post-doctoral fellow with CIFOR, based in Lao PDR. He can be contacted at

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Topic(s) :   Oil palm