APP pledges to restore forests, if given the opportunity

/ Rhett A. Butler

Over the past 20 years, Sumatra's lowland rainforests have been destroyed at a virtually unmatched rate and scale. Since 1990, the island's primary forests shrank by 40 percent while its overall forest cover declined by 36 percent, mostly the result of logging, agricultural expansion, and conversion for oil palm and timber plantations. What little forest does survive is often degraded — today less than 8 percent of Sumatra retains primary forest.

This is part of a series of articles on market transformation in the pulp and paper and palm oil sectors in Indonesia.

APP acacia plantation in Riau, Indonesia in February 2014.
APP acacia plantation in Riau, Indonesia in February 2014. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Over the past 20 years, Sumatra’s lowland rainforests have been destroyed at a virtually unmatched rate and scale. Since 1990, the island’s primary forests shrank by 40 percent while its overall forest cover declined by 36 percent, mostly the result of logging, agricultural expansion, and conversion for oil palm and timber plantations. What little forest does survive is often degraded — today less than 8 percent of Sumatra retains primary forest. Therefore protecting remaining forest is viewed as a top priority for conservationists, especially in Riau, a province where forests have been particularly devastated.

But conservation efforts in Sumatra have had mixed success. A study published in 2012 found that protected areas lost forest at roughly the same rate as logging concessions during the 1990’s. Several parks — including Tesso Nilo, Bukit Tigapuluh, and Bukit Barisan Selatan — have been overrun with encroachment, resulting in poaching, illegal logging and fire-setting, and large-scale conversion for coffee and palm oil production. Accordingly, critical habitat for Sumatra’s endangered wildlife — orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants — continues to decline on an annual basis, in both protected and unprotected areas.

Bukit Tigapuluh provides an illustration of the problem. Known as Thirty Hills, the area once featured a landscape of lowland dipterocarp rainforest, an ecosystem that is increasingly rare across Southeast Asia. But Bukit Tigapuluh’s forests have been hard hit by unsustainable logging and subsequent conversion to woodpulp plantations. Outside the protected area only scattered blocks of forest remain today.

These remnant patches of rainforest — which in 2009 were dubbed by WWF as the “No. 1 conservation priority for non-peat forests in Sumatra” — are now at the center tug-of-war between traditional conservation groups and a company that recently proclaimed a commitment to protect and restore Indonesia’s forests as part of an effort to undue some of its deforestation legacy.

The company is Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), historically one of Indonesia’s most notorious forest destroyers, which recently said it is willing to work toward restoring Indonesia’s fast-dwindling forests as part of its new sustainability push, which commits it to excluding new forest and peatland conversion from its supply chain. That commitment means any company that supplies APP, whether it is an affiliate or independent supplier, must also avoid clearing forest for fiber and new plantations.

The policy therefore directly applies to PT Rimba Hutani Mas (RHM), a forestry company that has been angling to pulp a forested piece of the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape for years. But if RHM wants to continue selling to APP, it will have to abide by the policy, so the company recently applied for an ecosystem restoration license that would allow it to conserve rather than clear. The problem is WWF and other groups have also applied for an ecosystem restoration license in the same area.

While it may seem that two disparate groups could work together toward a similar objective, the situation is seemingly complicated by mistrust. Furthermore, neither group may end up with the permit — it could go to another plantation company.

Maps showing forest cover, forest loss, protected areas, and woodpulp plantations in the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click image for interactive map

Pulp and paper’s checked past around Bukit Tigapuluh

It’s easy to see why some green groups are skeptical about the motives of the pulp and paper operator. For one, APP’s environmental legacy around Bukit Tigapuluh is poor, according to WWF.

“APP has to do undo the incredible damage their logging corridor has done to the ecosystem,” Aditya (Dito) Bayunanda of WWF-Indonesia told “The legally questionable road was built through dense rainforest in 2007 without any concerns for the environment to truck wood from APP suppliers to one of the company’s pulp mills.”

“Endless rows of trucks laden with tropical forest timber have been thundering over this road for years. Unfortunately, some of these trucks were loaded with what appeared to be forest illegally cleared in areas outside APP’s concessions, those surrounding the Bukit Tigapuluh national park and including concessions of another company, Barito Pacific. Some of those forests were illegally cleared by encroachers from other provinces and even islands to establish oil palm plantations. This would not have happened had APP not built this road.”

The main logging corridor road of APP/SMG through good natural forest inside the former PT. IFA selective logging concession, current PT. Lestari Asri Jaya industrial timber plantation (HTI) concession Blok IV on 26 April 2010. © Heriyadi Asyari/Doc. KKI WARSI

Orang rimba family stranded when APP/SMG’s PT. Tebo Multiagro Corporation cleared their natural forest to plant pulpwood trees (see Chapter 5-8) © WWF-Indonesia, 17 April 2010 at S1°1’37.60″; E101°55’36.50″. Captions and images from Last Chance to Save Bukit Tigapuluh.

Another worry is RHM’s erratic legal maneuvering, which was highlighted in a recent report from Greenomics, an Indonesian NGO. Since last July RHM has applied for, canceled and reapplied for an ecosystem restoration license in the area. Adding to the concern is confusion over whether RHM is an affiliate or independent supplier of APP and RHM’s past links to logging of ramin, a protected tree species.

APP however brushes aside some of this criticism, noting the policy applies to RHM regardless of whether it is owned by APP or independent (APP told it is not a shareholder in RHM). The application process was also started by RHM in 2006 — well before APP established its policy — while the flurry of recent changes to the licenses is a product of lack of clarity over how to establish an ecosystem restoration concession within a production forest.

“According to the Ministry of Forestry, RHM’s proposed expansion is located inside Production Forest area,” Aida Greenbury, Managing Director of Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement at APP, told “Legally, the procedure to change from this function to ecosystem restoration is still unclear.”

APP says that if RHM is granted a license to expand its plantation into the area in question, it would be “fully committed to the protection of the natural forests and FPIC process”, meaning that areas identified as having high conservation value (HCV) or high carbon stocks (HCS) would be preserved. If the ecosystem restoration license moves forward, APP asserts the forest areas would be incorporated into a broader landscape forest management plan. Communities will be engaged and damaged forests would be allowed to recover and possibly be linked to corridors of other habitat and protected areas.

“Our intention is clear: We will implement our ZERO deforestation policy, which means that all natural forest in our supply chain will be protected, HCVs will be identified and enhanced, FPIC and social conflict resolution will be upheld, and all these will be incorporated into an Integrated Sustainable Forest Management Plan, at the landscape level, which will address forest restoration to both enhance HCVs and address our past legacy.”

A block of forest APP is protecting under a conservation agreement in the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu landscape in Riau.
A block of forest APP is protecting under a conservation agreement in the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu landscape in Riau

But WWF says it will take more than words to convince it that the forestry giant is serious about protecting remnant forests around Bukit Tigapuluh.

“RHM had been applying to convert these forests for many years despite objection by the international NGO community,” said Dito. “We are surprised by this direct in-your-face competition to an NGO effort to secure high conservation value lands.”

Greenbury however is adamant that the issue is about conservation, not deception. Whoever gets the concession will need to protect the remaining forests.

“Should the license be given to another party, we hope that the new concession owner will also commit to landscape level forest protection,” she said.

“We will support and would be willing to work closely with any parties that share our value of zero deforestation. There must be more collaboration if we are to fully establish a sustainable strategy that will allow the industry and forest conservation to both thrive. It cannot be a case of either/or anymore – both must co-exist harmoniously.”

Responding to lingering doubts on the sincerity of its commitment, Greenbury told that APP has gone too far to reverse course on its forest conservation policy (FCP).

“We can’t back track our commitment,” said Greenbury. “We have to succeed with our forest conservation policy.”

“All eyes are watching us to make the FCP a reality. To do anything otherwise would be very stupid.”

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