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Paper and fast fashion fan the flames burning Indonesia’s peat: Report

Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Pulp and paper giants APP and APRIL continue to source their raw material from plantations located on carbon-rich peatlands in Indonesia.
  • The burning of these peat forests prior to planting accounts for much of the fires that have made Indonesia one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, and of the toxic haze that spreads out to neighboring countries.
  • A report by a coalition of NGOs warns that these problems could get worse under the companies’ current peat-intensive business model and a relaxing of peat-protection regulations by the government.
  • The companies have disputed the scale of the fires attributed to their suppliers’ plantations, and say they already carry out peat conservation initiatives.

JAKARTA — The toxic haze that swept across large swaths of Southeast Asia this year from forest and land fires in Indonesia could become a common phenomenon if two of the region’s biggest paper companies continue doing business as usual, a new report says.

Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) get much of the wood pulp from which they make paper and other products from vast plantations run by subsidiaries or suppliers in Indonesia, largely on the island of Sumatra. APP’s suppliers manage approximately 6,000 square kilometers (2,316 square miles) of pulpwood plantations on peatland, while APRIL’s subsidiaries or long-term supplier oversee more than 2,650 square kilometers (1,023 square miles) of plantations, also on peat.

It’s the burning of peat forests — areas with thick layers of moist, partially decomposed vegetation that store vast amounts of carbon dioxide — during the annual dry season that contributes to the haze and accounts for the bulk of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions. And the situation is projected to only get worse, according to the report published by a coalition of NGOs.

“Will this situation change? Yes — but likely not for the better,” says the coalition, which includes the U.S.-based Rainforest Action Network, the Environmental Papers Network, and Indonesian environmental NGOs Auriga and Hutan Kita Institute.

That’s because both APP and APRIL have failed to sufficiently shift their operations to non-peatland areas that are less combustible than fire-prone peat, the report says. Instead, they’ve both made large capital investments in capacity expansion and new business ventures that could put further pressure on peatlands.

At the same time, the government has also relaxed measures put in place after the 2015 fire and haze crisis to protect and restore peatlands. This combination, the report says, is the perfect recipe for a future disaster.

APP and APRIL, it says, “are likely to perpetuate elevated levels of fire and haze risk in Indonesia for many years to come.”

Fires in peat land in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

More carbon than the burning of the Amazon

The 2019 fires have pumped at least 708 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — almost double the emissions from the fires that swept through the Brazilian Amazon this year.

And many of those fires broke out in pulpwood plantations. Of the eight worst-affected plantations in terms of the number of fire alerts, six supply APP and one supplies APRIL.

Syahrul Fitra, a researcher with Auriga, one of the NGOs in the coalition, said the high number of hotspots showed that not much had changed since the 2015 fire and haze episode.

“It’s been four years since the disastrous 2015 fires, and these companies said they had adopted best management practices,” he told Mongabay. “But we can see for ourselves the reality of the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan [Indonesian Borneo]. This is because these peatlands have long been dried out. So this year’s fires are a result of this long process of peat draining.”

Both APP and APRIL said the hotspots didn’t necessarily correspond to fires. APRIL said only 8 percent of the alerts corresponded to actual fires.

“This is based on years of monitoring and ground verification,” the company said in a response to Mongabay. “Every hotspot is ground-truthed and reported within 24 hours to confirm the risk or incidence of fire. World Resources Institute [WRI] and NASA all issue caveats around satellite data, which is why ground-truthing is required.”

Syahrul said there was no way to confirm APRIL’s data because the company didn’t share its ground-truthing hotspot findings publicly.

“They just say the NASA data is wrong and expect us to believe their claims without providing evidence,” he said. “Our sense is that if their claims were accurate, they would be far more transparent with providing the documentation to support it.”

He noted that unlike APRIL, APP provides daily and weekly fire reports on its website, indicating how many hotspots have been detected and how many of these have been verified as fires. The information is presented in both raw data form and on maps.

“APRIL should learn from APP about how to be transparent with fire data reporting if they want people to take their claims about fires seriously,” Syahrul said.

Responding specifically to the fire alerts detected on an APRIL supplier plantation in Sumatra’s Riau province, the company said the burning occurred on an undeveloped, unmanaged area that was also claimed by a local community. It added it was working to resolve the disputed claim.

But Syahrul said the company was trying to shirk responsibility for the fires by blaming others.

“APRIL is continuing a pattern that we have seen again and again from them of shifting blame to communities for problems to which the company has clearly contributed,” he said.

Separately, APP didn’t deny the findings in the NGOs’ report when asked by Mongabay. However, the company told Al Jazeera that based on its internal data, less than 20 percent of hotspots detected were related to actual fires.

Syahrul said the data on APP’s own website showed the opposite: “[B]etween October 8 and November 5 … 79 percent of hotspots were confirmed as fires, 10 percent were verified as not fires, and 11 percent had yet to be verified,” he said. “This suggests a significantly higher rate of actual fires to hotspots than either company acknowledges in their responses to the report, and it aligns pretty closely to the false positive rate that NASA indicates for the dataset.”

Citing NASA’S VIIRS sensor data in the report, APP noted that hotspots on pulpwood plantations only made up a small portion of the total number of hotspots in Indonesia (41,073 fire alerts, or 11 percent of the total 389,048 fire alerts through Oct. 31).

This “suggests that properly managed plantations are better able to address the problem of fires,” Elim Sritaba, the chief sustainability officer at APP, told Mongabay.

Syahrul acknowledged that there were more fire alerts outside of pulpwood plantations than within them, but that the pulpwood companies still had a responsibility to tackle the problem, given the large areas of peatland included in their concessions.

Fires in peat land in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Balancing conservation and development

Both APP and APRIL say their suppliers are carrying out programs to protect the peat areas of their concessions, including restoring areas that have been drained and dried out, and conserving other areas that haven’t been cleared yet.

But the NGOs say these suppliers are still cultivating large areas of drained peatland — areas that are at high risk of burning, according to the report. The report also says the companies’ efforts are focused on initiatives that will allow them to keep using the drained peatland, instead of retiring, restoring and rewetting these areas altogether.

“Neither company has committed to nor begun implementing large-scale restoration measures of the hundreds of thousands of hectares of drained peatlands on which they currently grow acacia wood for pulp production,” the report says. “Without taking this fundamental step, it is doubtful these companies can significantly reduce the fire risk from their operations.”

But with 43 percent of Riau province comprising peatland, it’s not economically feasible to avoid developing on peat, according to APRIL.

“Development without conservation is not sustainable; conservation without development is not viable,” the company said. “The key is to ensure that peatlands are managed actively, responsibly and based on science and that there is a balance with conservation.”

Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Relaxing protective measures

The notion that development on peatland is inevitable appears to have also colored the government’s softening stance on the issue.

The slate of regulations rolled out after the 2015 fires were aimed at freezing the development of peatlands, including those already part of existing concessions, and rezoning them for conservation to prevent future outbreaks of fire and haze. Peatlands eligible for this protection, initially at least, were those with peat layers deeper than 3 meters (10 feet), those containing high biodiversity, and peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges.

These types of peat areas account for a combined 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) of concessions supplying APP and APRIL, located mostly in Sumatra. A previous spatial analysis by the NGO coalition found that banning the development of these areas for plantations would lead to a supply crunch for APP and APRIL, affecting 30 percent and 25 percent of their respective supply chains.

Earlier this year, the government issued a new regulation limiting the types to peat landscapes eligible for protection to just peat domes, leaving 3-meter and high-biodiversity peat areas once again open for exploitation.

According to NGOs’ report, nearly 50 percent of the fire alerts in the worst-affected pulpwood concessions through October were located within these areas previously designated as protection zones.

“Shortly after the regulation was issued, we can see for ourselves that the areas that were supposed to be restored were burned instead,” Syahrul said. “While we can’t say that the regulation exacerbated the fires, we can say that fires in peat areas are still severe.”

Regardless of the impact the new regulation had on the subsequent fires, it’s still a misguided policy because it caters to the interests of pulp and paper companies, Syahrul said.

“We haven’t seen how the peat domes are being restored, but the regulation has already shrunk the peat location that has to be protected,” he said. “At a time when peatlands are still burning, the protection zones are being diminished.”

Allowing companies to continue cultivating carbon-rich peatlands means permitting a business model that’s not sustainable, he added.

“These fires are connected to these pulp and paper companies’ dependence on peatlands for their crops,” Syahrul said.

Peatland in Indonesia drained to prepare the land for agriculture. Peatlands accumulate their rich carbon stores over thousands of years, but begin to decompose once they lose their moisture. Carbon release is further accelerated due to fire, when “carbon goes out much faster than it went in,” explains Guido van der Werf of the University of Amsterdam. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Peat-intensive investments

That dependence looks set to deepen, with both APP and APRIL investing in new projects that will likely intensify existing cultivation of peatlands.

APP has since December 2016 operated one of the world’s biggest pulp mills in South Sumatra province. Operation of the mill at full capacity is expected to increase APP’s overall demand for wood fiber in Indonesia by 75 percent, according to the NGOs’ report.

That increase will difficult for APP to commit to major peatland restoration initiatives, which, by their nature, would reduce the group’s pulpwood plantation base, Syahrul said.

“If APP restores its peat concessions to the maximum, then it will face supply crunch,” he said.

APRIL, meanwhile, has entered the textile market in a bid to become the world’s largest producer of viscose staple fiber (VSF).

APRIL recently converted pulp lines at its Sumatra mill to produce the higher grade (dissolving) pulp used in VSF production. APRIL’s dissolving pulp supplies a new VSF mill in the same location owned by the company’s parent conglomerate, RGE International Group, under the name Asia Pacific Rayon, as well as other RGE-owned VSF mills in China under the Sateri Group, the world’s biggest VSF producer.

Sateri’s customers include global clothing retailers Zara and H&M, according to a 2017 report by the Changing Markets Foundation.

VSF is increasingly popular in the textile industry, marketed as an “eco-friendly” and less water-intensive alternative to cotton. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, RGE director Anderson Tanoto said VSF could help the fast-fashion industry become more sustainable, touting it as biodegradable and “sourced from sustainably managed tree plantations.”

But VSF from Indonesian pulpwood plantations might not be quite so sustainable, Syahrul said. He noted that the pulp APRIL uses to produce VSF comes from Acacia crassicarpa, an acacia species that the company cultivates only on peatlands; Acacia mangium, the species that APRIL grows on mineral soils (i.e. non-peat areas) for its paper products, isn’t suitable for producing the type of pulp required to make VSF.

APRIL said there wouldn’t be an increase in its production capacity and thus no increase in the group’s overall pulpwood requirements.

Even so, the need for trees that can only be grown on peatland provides a strong incentive for APRIL to continue draining, planting, replanting, and harvesting in peatland areas rather than reducing its operational footprint there, Syahrul said.

“And the possibility of them restoring their peat concessions is going even further down,” he added.

The combination of the companies’ peat-intensive investments and the government’s relaxation of peat-protection policies is “evidence of the lack of commitment in restoring peatlands,” he said.

“The strange thing is that the government knew that if the demand for the raw material increased [because of the new investments], the threat to peatlands would also grow,” Syahrul said. “But the government still issued licenses [for the new investments].”


Banner image: Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.


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