- Pulpwood companies in Indonesia are continuing to plant on degraded peatlands inside their concessions, despite being required to protect and restore these ecosystems, a new report shows.
- The report focuses on 16 pulp and paper producers and found all of them in violation of peat protection and rehabilitation regulations.
- Among the violations are planting and harvesting acacia trees in previously burned peatlands, and digging new canals to drain peatland.
- Among the companies highlighted in the report are subsidiaries of two of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, APP and APRIL.
JAKARTA — Pulpwood companies obliged to restore the degraded peatlands inside their concessions in Indonesia are instead continuing to cultivate the land, a new investigative report says.
The report by a coalition of NGOs focuses on 16 pulp and paper producers in the provinces of Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra, on the island of Sumatra, and West Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. It compares maps of the companies’ concessions with the government’s indicative map for peat restoration from mid- to late 2020.
The NGOs also sent surveyors to the field to see if the companies were conserving the peatlands that are supposed to be restored and protected based on the government map.
What they found was that all 16 companies were failing to do that.
“We still found clearing of natural forests, land and forest fires as well as minimal efforts to restore degraded peatlands,” said Yaya Nurul Fitria, research manager of the NGO Jikalahari, a member of the coalition.
This is despite the companies having adopted sustainability pledges, such as the “no deforestation, no peatland, no exploitation” policy, or NDPE.
The companies are also legally obliged to rehabilitate burned peatlands and retire the peat areas of their concessions for conservation, as part of wider government efforts to combat recurring forest fires in Indonesia.
Large-scale conversion of peatlands into plantations, primarily for pulpwood and oil palm, requires digging canals to drain these swampy forests. This dries out the thick peat layer — partly decomposed vegetation that has accumulated for thousands of years and holds huge volumes of carbon dioxide — rendering it highly flammable.
Yaya said the deforestation detected by the NGOs’ coincided with areas designated on the government map for protection and rehabilitation as they had been burned in the past, known as red zones.
“We also found the cutting down of acacia trees and planting of acacia seeds in areas that were supposed to be restored after fires,” she said. “So we see how they still harvest and cultivate in red zones, which means they’re neglecting their responsibilities.”
Those degraded or burned peatlands that were not cultivated were left abandoned, with barely any efforts by the companies to restore them, Yaya added.
“We still found restoration efforts that were half-assed,” she said. “There were companies that didn’t do [restoration] to the maximum. There were those that hadn’t done [restoration] at all.”
One of the companies highlighted in the report is PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a unit of the APRIL conglomerate.
Investigators from Jikalahari found signs of company activity inside protected and conservation peat zones in RAPP’s concession in Riau’s Meranti Islands district. Among the signs was the discovery of piles of acacia seeds ready to be planted in red zones in Putri Puyu village.
The Jikalahari team also found acacia trees estimated to be between 2 and 3 years old in protected peatland areas with drainage canals, also known as blue zones. They also found worker areas with blue tarps there.
“There were [also] piles of acacia logs that had just been harvested in RAPP’s concession and vacant lands where timber had just been harvested in red zones or areas prioritized to be restored after fires,” the report said.
Jikalahari also found an excavator being used to clean canals and construct a road to transport logs.
Responding to the report, APRIL said its operations in its plantation areas “are fully compliant with existing laws and regulations as well as our Sustainable Forest Management Policy 2.0.”
“The operational activity is also in line with the terms of our approved long-term work plan and annual work plan,” APRIL told Mongabay in an email.
The company said it’s committed to managing its plantation and restoration concessions responsibly by restoring and conserving 1.25 hectares of peatland forest for every hectare of production area on peatland.
Another company highlighted in the report is PT Arara Abadi (AA), a subsidiary of paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).
The Jikalahari team found the company harvesting acacia trees using excavators in red zones.
“Furthermore, AA also replanted acacia seeds aged three months in previously burned areas,” the report said.
In its response to the report, APP questioned the accuracy of the maps used by the NGOs. It said it had used airplane-based lidar, a remote-sensing technology using laser, to map all of its suppliers’ concession areas. These lidar maps have been approved by the government and are used as the basis of APP’s work plans, the company said.
“It is unclear what maps these NGOs are using to make their determinations, but they are most likely old maps (the report indicate 2016,2017 & 2018) that are superseded by newer and more detailed LiDAR maps,” APP head of strategic engagement and advocacy Letchumi Achanah told Mongabay in an email.
Yaya from Jikalahari said the NGOs used the latest publicly available map, which is the indicative map for peat restoration published by the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, in 2018. She added the companies’ own peat maps attached in their work plans aren’t publicly available.
“We’ve asked the Ministry of Environment and Forestry as well as companies to open the work plans that they’ve made,” Yaya said. “Even today, they’re still not available.”
The report noted that the ministry had never published the list of companies that have revised their work plans to include restoration of degraded and burned peatlands in their concessions. It’s also unclear which companies have restored their peat concessions and which have been punished for replanting on previously burned concessions instead of restoring them, according to the report.
Achanah said APP is operating within the boundaries of Indonesian law, its work plans and its sustainability policy.
“Every new planting or harvesting is clearly specified in an annual work plan, which is submitted to, and approved by, the Indonesian authorities,” she said, adding that APP and all of its suppliers strictly adhere to a zero-burning policy.
“It holds no value to APP and its suppliers to be involved in any slash & burn method,” she said.
The report also cited an ongoing land dispute between Arara Abadi and the Sakai Indigenous community in Riau province.
AA has since 1996 held the concession to the disputed land, part of its 292,262-hectare (722,195-acre) concession — an area larger than Luxembourg.
The coalition’s report said the company’s concession overlaps with the customary land of the Sakai peoples. According to the report, the Sakai community’s sacred graveyard sites have been planted with acacia trees by AA.
On April 27, security personnel from AA reportedly clashed with members of the Sakai community, injuring some Indigenous women in the process. One of the women, Ipuk, was pushed and dragged around while carrying her 1-year-old baby. She passed out.
“My chest still hurts,” Ipuk told Mongabay in May.
Achanah said there are no indications that AA employees and security contractors had resorted to violence, but added the allegations are being investigated.
“APP respects the principles of free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] and is firmly committed to resolving all legitimate prior conflicts,” she said.
She also said the locals involved in the incident were migrants from outside Riau, not Indigenous Sakai peoples.
“Likewise, the ‘traditional land’ claimed is, and has long been, operational plantation land which was only recently harvested,” she said. “It was between harvests, when the land was fallow, that these migrants moved to illegally occupy the area.”
Of the allegation that the concession overlaps with the Sakai ancestral gravesites, she said: “The area in question was determined not to have these conservation values.”
Ismail Dolek, a youth leader from the Sakai community, denied that the incident involved migrants. He noted that his own mother, Nurlaila, was injured during the incident. She still suffers from difficulty breathing as a result of injuries sustained during the clash and has to take painkillers, he said.
A fact-finding team from the National Commission on Human Rights, a government-funded body, has established that the Sakai people have lived in the area and farmed the land here since 1830, long before Indonesia’s independence in 1945. They were granted official ownership of the land in 1940 by the Sultan of Siak, a finding that has been confirmed by the Riau Customary Institution.
Today, the Sakai are spread across 10 villages in the area. Ismail’s father, Ridwan, a community leader, said many of their ancestors’ graves had been bulldozed by Arara Abadi.
“Don’t let our parents’ graves also be bulldozed,” he said. “We don’t want to see the bones of our ancestors scattered all over the place in the future. We’ve pleaded many times [to not disturb the gravesites], but they’ve always ignored us.”
Banner image: Disaster Mitigation Agency worker tries to extinguish peat fires in Batang Hari district in Jambi, Indonesia. Image by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay Indonesia.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.