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As accusations fly, paper giant appears to stand by its replanting of burned peat in Sumatra

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

  • After the 2015 fire and haze crisis, the Indonesian government barred plantation firms from replanting the peatlands that had burned in their concessions. Instead, the companies were ordered to restore the dried-out peat soil to prevent future fires.
  • Some agribusinesses, however, are said to be resurrecting their drainage-dependent acacia and oil palm estates in violation of the directive from President Jokowi’s administration. One of them is Asia Pulp & Paper, an arm of the Sinar Mas conglomerate.
  • APP declined to comment substantively for this article, except to imply that everything it does is in accordance with the rules. But a director in the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry explained that the company had been authorized to replant burned peat with acacia trees because, he said, it would serve to mitigate certain fire risks.
  • NGOs surveyed by Mongabay rejected the contention that planting peat with drainage-dependent acacia constitutes a valid means of peatland restoration, although some were more understanding of the government’s position than others.

In the wake of last year’s devastating forest fires, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s administration forbid agribusinesses from replanting the desiccated peatlands that had gone up in flames during the disaster. The prohibition was part of a bundle of regulatory changes intended to prevent the annual blaze from recurring.

As 2016 draws to a close, however, some companies appear to be quietly reestablishing their ruined estates. In November, it arose that two units of the Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) conglomerate were replanting burned peat swamps in South Sumatra province, an epicenter of last year’s fires. The reports came via comments made by San Afri Awang, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s director of spatial planning, to the website foresthints.news, which portrayed him as assailing APP for brazenly flouting the state’s regulations. Others piled on; Indonesia’s largest environmental pressure group, Walhi, condemned the paper giant for “clearly [violating] the law,” and this week the forestry minster reportedly ordered the company to remove the newly installed acacia trees.

Through it all, APP has remained effectively silent, offering only cryptic assurances that it follows “all government regulations and guidelines,” as the paper giant told Mongabay this week. Its response implied that it had done nothing wrong. But further scrutiny points to a reality that lies somewhere in between.

A satellite image taken in September 2015 at the height of that year’s haze crisis shows the international extent of the disaster. The smoke drifted as far as East Africa and the Western Pacific. NASA image by Adam Voiland (NASA Earth Observatory) and Jeff Schmaltz (LANCE MODIS Rapid Response)

The 2015 Southeast Asia haze crisis has been called the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century. Sweeping across an area the size of Vermont, last year’s fires blanketed Indonesia and its neighbors in smoke, sickened half a million people and released more carbon during the same period than the entire US economy.

Illegal-but-cheap slash-and-burn practices by companies and farmers alike are a big reason the archipelago country burns each year. But the root cause is the large-scale drainage of Indonesia’s vast peat bog zones by the paper and palm oil industries. Planters dig canals through the soggy turf in order to lower the water table and prepare the land for cultivation. While the practice has opened new frontiers to expand production of the lucrative commodities, it also dries out the peat — rendering it highly flammable.

Art by Prabha Mallya

As last year’s conflagration reached its peak, and with the UN climate summit in Paris just a month away, President Jokowi, as he is known, declared a moratorium on new peatland drainage and ordered firms to restore any peat that had burned in their concessions. APP was perhaps the most affected: in South Sumatra alone, the fires incinerated 26 percent of its total planted area, according to an analysis by environmental groups. The destruction of APP’s assets came at a time when the company was constructing a gargantuan new paper mill in the province, whose supply, the NGOs noted, would be jeopardized by the loss of the plantations — and by the government’s ban on resurrecting them.

A pulpwood plantation on peat in Indonesia’s Riau province, on the country’s main western island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

APP has yet to publicly address the allegations being leveled against it. But Putera Parthama, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s director of production forests, told Mongabay last week that at least two APP units had been allowed to replant burned peat with acacia pulpwood trees. “It was for fire prevention,” he wrote in an email.

As Parthama explained it, letting the firms replant would force them to clear the dead and dried biomass that had accumulated in the wake of the fires and that now constituted a fire risk. The policy, he added, would also encourage the companies to protect the land from encroachment by local people. Growers often fail to patrol the borders of their concessions, even as they are frequently involved in disputes with local people who claim that the land is theirs, or that the firm has broken its promises to the community. This is allegedly the case with one of the APP units in question, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau. (The other is PT Bumi Andalas Permai.)

There’s a catch, Parthama stressed: if the replanted land was subsequently shown to be part of a peat dome — a particularly carbon-rich landscape where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges — the companies would be forbidden from harvesting the acacia. Indonesia is still trying to determine where all of its peatlands are, a hotly contested process that could take years to complete.

It’s not only the two APP suppliers that have asked for and been authorized to replant burned peat with acacia, Parthama added. But he said he could not recall the names of the other firms.

The only other player in Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry is Asia Pacific International Resources Limited (APRIL), an arm of the Royal Golden Eagle conglomerate. The company did not respond to inquiries about whether it had sought the same permissions to replant.

A thick smoke is seen over the Indonesian city of Palangkaraya, one of the worst-hit by last year’s disaster. Photo by Jenito

NGOs surveyed by Mongabay rejected the contention that planting peat with drainage-dependent acacia constitutes a valid means of peatland restoration.

“Peatland revegetation with a vegetation or crop that requires drainage will always be insufficient, even though direct sun-impact on the soil will be reduced and a suitable microclimate may be established,” said Marcel Silvius, program head of climate-smart land use at Wetlands International, which also argues that the entire system of industrial agriculture on drained peat is unsustainable. “The primary requirement of an appropriately rewetted soil will not be achieved, thus perpetuating all main peatland degradation processes and fire risks.”

As far as whether a license to replant would incentivize companies to guard against encroachment, Silvius noted that planted acacia and oil palm plantations are also regularly on fire, “so the economic factor appears to be insufficient to counter the environmental risk.”

“It seems rather inconsistent,” he added, “for the [environment ministry] to grant permission to APP to replant burned areas to reduce fire risks, as it not only sets a precedent for all other companies with burned areas in peatlands, thus undercutting the Ministerial policy and the Minister’s letter from December 2015” — among the Jokowi administration’s regulatory response to last year’s crisis — “but it also perpetuates the fire risk.”

“The only sensible thing to do is to retire the drainage based land-use of these areas and replace this with proper rewetting and restoration.”

Malaysian schoolboys wear facemasks with Kuala Lumpur affected by haze pollution in 2012. Photo by Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons

From a conservation perspective, the science says that leaving peat alone is the best policy, agreed Arief Wijaya, a senior manager of the World Resources Institute’s office in Indonesia. He said that even a little bit of damage to the carbon-rich peat, not to mention the large-scale drainage of entire landscapes, would certainly cause a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

“If the question is what is the ultimate solution to avoid emissions from peat, then the answer is not to do anything on peatlands,” he told Mongabay.

At the same time, Wijaja tried to see it from the point of view of the officials who had allowed APP to carry out the replanting. “We also know it is not easy for the government to say ‘look, APP, you need to stop your operations tomorrow,’ because they have these licenses.”

Ultimately, he said, the fate of Indonesia’s peat lies in large part with the implementing regulations that various ministries will issue as part of the follow up to Jokowi’s new edict on peatland management, which the president signed into law on Dec. 1.

In the view of Greenpeace Indonesia’s Rusmadya Maharuddin, APP’s activities run counter to the edict, given the manner in which the regulation obliges companies to restore damaged peatlands.

“Article 30 (3) specifies what forms this should take – and it does not include replanting with commercial species,” Maharuddin said. “The specified options are natural succession, rehabilitation, restoration and other technological advancements which may arise — it is difficult to imagine that this would include business-as-usual replanting with acacia.”

Editor’s note (Dec. 24): Mongabay is aware of a public comment by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry denying that the ministry had authorized APP (subsidiaries/suppliers) to replant acacia trees on burned peatland. We will be publishing a response in the New Year, which will include the interview responses given to Mongabay on Dec. 7 by Putera Parthama.

Editor’s note (Jan. 9): This article was based primarily on an email interview with Putera Parthama, the ministry’s director of production forests, who replied in the affirmative when Mongabay asked in early December if the companies “[had] been allowed to replant burned peatlands with acacia.”

On Dec. 23, however, the ministry publicly denied having authorized any replanting of burned peat. The two APP units — PT Bumi Andalas Permai (BAP) and PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) — were said to have only been allowed to replant burned non-peat, in accordance with a 2015 ministerial regulation forbidding the replanting of peat that had burned during that year’s forest fires.

In advance of publishing this note, Mongabay contacted the ministry to clarify the matter but received no response.

The ministry’s other prior statements to Mongabay indicate that some firms have been authorized to replant burned land that could be peat. In the email interview it was related that if the replanted area was later determined to be part of a peat dome, which is a stretch of particularly deep peat, the replanted acacia would have be left standing: “If it turns out certain areas fall into the category of protected area (peat domes), the company must not cut or harvest the planted trees.”

Tens of thousands of hectares of what burned in both PT BAP and PT BMH in 2015 are peatlands, according to the the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO.

Mongabay will report on this issue in detail in coming weeks and months.