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RAPP to retire some plantation land in Sumatra amid government pressure

Deforested peatland and peat forest at sunset in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A subsidiary of paper giant APRIL has agreed in principle to retire a large part of its plantations in eastern Sumatra for conservation purposes, following government orders.
  • The company initially refused to comply with what it saw as an illegal order, and warned of a 50 percent reduction in supply from its concessions.
  • In giving up part of its concessions, RAPP is demanding to be compensated with new land — something the government has agreed to do in stages.

JAKARTA — Under pressure from President Joko Widodo’s administration, Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper company has agreed in principle to retire plantation land in eastern Sumatra, in line with a new regulation meant to prevent wildfires.

PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a unit of the APRIL conglomerate, initially refused to follow the government’s orders, calling them illegal, but acquiesced after the Ministry of Environment and Forestry invalidated its work plans.

The ministry justified its order based on a presidential regulation issued in the wake of the disastrous 2015 fires. Smoke from the conflagration blanketed Indonesia and neighboring countries in a choking haze, sickening half a million people, according to government figures. At the height of the disaster, the daily emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of the burning exceeded those from all U.S. economic activity.

The burning of Indonesia’s vast peat swamp zones is an almost yearly occurrence, as companies drain the land and clear it for plantations, rendering it highly flammable.

“We will try to perfect our work plans by continuing to consult [with the ministry] if there are things that are still unclear,” RAPP representative Irsan Syarief told reporters on Tuesday after a meeting with ministry officials in Jakarta.

The 2016 regulation was President Jokowi’s signature piece of anti-haze legislation. It stipulated the conservation of at least 30 percent of all peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges. It also required the conservation of areas where the peat is deeper than 3 meters (9.8 feet) and which contain high biodiversity.

RAPP’s concessions overlap with one of Indonesia’s deepest peat landscapes, the Kampar Peninsula. In May, the ministry asked RAPP and other companies to revise their work plans so that areas zoned for conservation under the 2016 regulation would be taken out of contention for development and rewetted to prevent future fires.

If RAPP has already planted a conservation zone with timber trees, it can see its crops through to the end of the harvest cycle, at which point it must restore the peatlands by blocking drainage canals, maintaining the water level and planting native vegetation. These areas will remain part of RAPP’s concessions.

“Right now, it’s OK to harvest crops that already exist, even in protected areas,” Ida Bagus Putera Parthama, the ministry’s director-general for sustainable forest management, said after the meeting.

On the other hand, burned areas will revert to state control, though RAPP is still responsible for restoring them, according to a 2017 ministerial guideline.

Peat swamp in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Before it assented to the ministry’s demands, RAPP insisted it should be allowed to operate in the rezoned areas until its licenses expired. The company based its argument on a 2014 regulation on peatland protection, which is amended by the president’s more recent decree.

RAPP also warned that retiring a significant swath of its plantations would force it to lay off thousands of workers. The company has demanded that the government provide it with new lands to develop, in exchange for the concessions it is surrendering.

“If there’s no land swap and we have to revise our working plans, then our main supply from our concessions and our business partners’ will be reduced by 50 percent,” APRIL said in a press statement.

The ministry rejected RAPP’s request to provide compensation in kind, pending the company’s actions to set aside some of its concessions for conservation purposes.

Bambang Hendroyono, the ministry’s secretary-general, said there was no way for the government to provide land substitution for RAPP beforehand if it was still unclear how much land would be converted into protected areas.

But now that RAPP has agreed to revise its work plans, Hendroyono said the ministry would provide land substitution in stages every year, at a maximum of 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) per year.

It remains unclear where the government will find new lands for RAPP to develop, but the ministry insists the country still has enough vacant land.

According to the ministry, there are some concessions that have been left idle because of land rights conflicts with residents. The ministry said it would try to resolve these conflicts so that the land could be put to use.

Aerial view of acacia harvesting on a plantation in Riau. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

While some local media reported that RAPP’s operational permit had been canceled, Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar confirmed at her office on Monday that only its work plans had been invalidated.

Both RAPP and the ministry said there had been misunderstanding and lack of communication between both sides throughout the whole process.

As a result, RAPP temporarily ceased operation in its concessions beginning Oct. 18 because it thought that by invalidating its work plans, the ministry had banned the company from operating.

After that, RAPP decided to furlough 4,600 workers, resulting in a massive protest by workers outside the Riau governor’s office on Monday.

Hendroyono said RAPP misunderstood the situation because the ministry only ordered the company to revise its work plans and stop planting in protected areas, not to stop operating.

Now that the ministry has clarified what it expects of RAPP, the company has resumed its operations and said it would try to submit its new work plans before the Oct. 30 deadline.


Banner image: Deforested peatland and peat forest at sunset in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


The article above been adjusted to emphasize that RAPP has not yet agreed to retire any specific lands, just to revise its work plans in accordance with the new ministerial regulation (which, if carried out to completion, would necessitate the retirement of much of its plantation land). An APRIL spokesperson said in a message, “We haven’t ‘agreed’ to retire anything at this point….No solution has been finalised as yet because the work plan is being revised and resubmitted and then needs to be agreed by the Ministry. The legal aspect is also complex given the Supreme Court’s decision to revoke 17/2017, so this is a factor too.” He added, “the government is still working through the details of land swaps with all companies, including the largest, involving several hundred thousand hectares of new plantation area to be created.”

A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to RAPP as Indonesia’s second-largest paper company. That title belongs to its parent company, APRIL.

A confusing reference to the cause of the annual peat fires has been amended.


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