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Calls for end to business with paper giant APP over Sumatra land disputes

Drainage canals bisect a peatland planted with acacia trees in Indonesia's Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • A coalition of 90 NGOs has published an open letter urging investors and buyers to stop doing business with Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s biggest paper producers, in light of its ongoing disputes with communities in Sumatra.
  • The letter was precipitated specifically by allegations that an APP subsidiary used a drone to spray herbicide on farms belonging to a community with which it’s locked in a land dispute.
  • APP has denied wrongdoing in the incident, but activists say the move is just the latest in a campaign of intimidation mounted by the company.
  • Another APP affiliate is involved in a similar dispute in another part of Sumatra, which led to the recent jailing of an indigenous farmer for planting food crops on land claimed by both parties.

JAKARTA — A broad coalition of civil society groups has called on investors and buyers to stop doing business with Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s biggest paper producers, over ongoing land disputes with villagers in Indonesia.

The coalition, consisting of 90 environmental and human rights groups from countries including Indonesia, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, China, Australia and the U.S., published its call in an open letter on May 15. It said investors and buyers should be aware that APP had failed to fulfill a 2013 promise to respect local communities rights and resolve its social conflicts.

“Seven years after its commitment, the company is far from being on track to resolve its legacy conflicts,” the coalition said. “Worse yet, its forestry operations continue to create new violations and abuses.”

It called on “buyers and investors to avoid brands and papers linked to APP, Sinar Mas, Paper Excellence and their sister companies controlled by APP’s owner, the Widjaya family. We hope all parties conducting business with APP, or planning to, will be able to take a strong position immediately in relation to the latest incident.”

The incident in question centers around pulpwood producer PT Wirakarya Sakti (WKS), a subsidiary of APP, which is embroiled in a long-standing conflict with residents of the village of Lubuk Mandarsah, in Sumatra’s Jambi province, over 2,000 hectares (nearly 5,000 acres) of ancestral land.

The villagers allege a litany of violations by the company, the latest being in March, when WKS flew a drone to spray herbicide to prepare for planting a new batch of acacia seedlings. The locals said the drone flew over their farms neighboring the WKS plantation and killed their crops, including rubber and oil palm trees, in an area spanning 2 hectares (5 acres).

“This is the way PT Wirakarya Sakti resolved its conflict with the local community: by jeopardising the safety of their food and livelihood in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis,” the coalition said in the letter.

Era Purnama Sari, the deputy head of advocacy at the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI), whose Sumatran affiliates were among the signatories to the letter, condemned the incident.

“This is [WKS’s] way to eliminate the traces of the locals’ ownership over the lands,” she said. “And this is a recurring pattern for WKS because if we see the track record of WKS, in 2019 the company used the same method.”

In 2019, WKS was involved in a separate incident with an indigenous community in Jambi, which resulted in hundreds of police officers chasing the community members off their land and burning their homes and crops. WKS moved in almost immediately.

“When the lands were abandoned, they were cleared and in five days, all of them had been planted with acacia trees [by WKS],” Era said. “And around 3,000 [farmers’] huts were demolished. This is an elimination of evidence [of local presence] and this pattern is the same with what’s happening now [in Lubuk Mandarsah].”

Maria Sriwulani Sumardjono, an agrarian law professor at Gadjah Mada University, said if it’s true that the drone was used as a way to erase traces of the villagers’ claim to the land, then WKS’s own land claims can be contested.

“This way is against the law,” she said. “This [incident] should be considered as well when there’s a claim of land ownership [by the company]. It means that the land is not clean and clear.”

The drone incident is only the latest grievance by villagers against the company. Tensions between the two sides hit breaking point in 2015, when WKS security guards killed a villager, Indra Pelani, during an altercation. That incident prompted a truce, with the company acknowledging blame but avoiding criminal charges.

A drone deployed by PT Wirakarya Sakti captured by Lubuk Mandarsah villagers in Jambi, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Walhi Jambi.

APP responds

APP refuted the allegations that WKS’s use of the drone was an attempt to force the villagers off the land, calling them “gross misrepresentations of the facts on the ground.”

It said the company had made sure the spraying didn’t pose a risk to the health and safety of local communities by keeping it at a low altitude of 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) above the ground and in low-wind conditions.

“Drones also maintain a buffer zone of 20m [66 ft] from the outer border of the concession, to prevent herbicide from reaching outside the concession boundary,” APP said. It also denied that 2 hectares of community farms were affected.

The Jambi chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), one of the signatories of the open letter and a longtime advocate for the Lubuk Mandarsah villagers, disputed this account, saying that while only around 15 plants were killed because of the drone, locals reported 2 hectares of their crops were still affected to some degree by the drone activity.

APP said the drone incident has been investigated and resolved through mediation, with all parties, including community representatives, acknowledging that the area affected was outside the agreed boundaries of the area set aside for community livelihood.

WKS spokesman Taufik Qurochman said that since the incident, the company had held a series of meetings with the villagers and “the interaction on the ground is going constructively.”

Walhi Jambi director Rudiansyah said the mediation was an initiative of the local police, not by the company, and that it wasn’t actually a mediation because the villagers were invited by the police for an informal meeting with the new local police chief. And what WKS defined as a constructive interaction was the continuation of intimidation tactics by the company, he added.

The alleged bullying began before the drone incident, according to the villagers. On March 6, WKS filed a police complaint against one of the villagers, Ahmad, accusing him and other locals of encroaching on the company’s land. The complaint still stands. At the same time, the villagers said they faced intimidation by representatives from WKS, along with two unidentified people, to give up their land.

In the latest escalation, on April 28, a soldier accompanying WKS personnel fired two warning shots in the presence of a farmer, according to Rudiansyah. They were in Lubuk Mandarsah to collect names and other information, and the villager in question, Agus, had ignored their calls to speak with them.

Rudiansyah said this show of force “doesn’t make sense” for a company that claims to be committed to a peaceful resolution of its dispute with the community. WKS has also continued to co-opt the security forces on its behalf, putting up a sign with a police logo near the site of the drone incident, according to YLBHI’s Era. The sign says the area is under police monitoring and warns against any illegal actions there.

“For the villagers, this is a terror campaign, but using formal language,” Era said.

She said WKS’s apparent show of superiority over the villagers was fueled in part by the fact that it had never faced criminal charges for any of its actions.

“They’ve never been touched by the law,” she said, “even the case of Indra Pelani,” the farmer killed in 2015.

Villagers accompanied by activists from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Jambi staged a protest in front of the trial of the murder of 22-year old Indra Pelani at the hands of security guards contracted by Wirakarya Sakti (WKS), a plantation company owned by forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). Image courtesy of Walhi Jambi.

Another affiliate, another case

WKS isn’t the only APP affiliate highlighted in the coalition’s open letter. Another is PT Arara Abadi, which is embroiled in a similar dispute with a farmer from the Sakai indigenous community in Sumatra’s Riau province. The company has filed a criminal complaint against the farmer, named Bongku, for cutting down the company’s acacia and eucalyptus trees on land claimed by both sides.

Indigenous activists said Bongku was merely clearing land to plant sweet potatoes for his own consumption, but a court ruled that his activity had disrupted the company’s operations. On May 18 it sentenced him to a year a prison and fined him 200 million rupiah ($13,600).

APP said the contested land had never been occupied or managed by the Sakai community, but was instead used by an unrelated third party for commercial purposes. Yet several members of the Sakai community have since 2001 occupied the land.

The coalition said both cases highlighted the magnitude of social conflicts involving APP’s timber suppliers. A recent mapping and analysis by the Environmental Paper Network (EPN) and a coalition of Indonesian NGOs found that APP’s affiliates or suppliers are involved in conflicts with 107 communities in Indonesia, over around 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of disputed land.

In October 2019, APP said it was on track to resolve about 49% of the conflicts involving its concessions and suppliers. But cases of intimidation, violence and abuse continue to appear and be documented, according to the coalition. It called on investors and companies to refrain from doing business with APP and its affiliates until it could be proven that the company has made radical changes across its business operations.


Mongabay Indonesia reporter Elviza Diana has contributed to the story from Jambi.


Banner image: Drainage canals bisect a peatland planted with acacia trees in Indonesia’s Riau province. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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