As Indonesian fires rage, government turns a blind eye to pulp and paper industries

Forest fires are mostly caused by human activity. Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Rini Sulaiman/Norwegian Embassy, Creative Commons license 2.0.

The government in Jakarta may not exactly be fiddling while Indonesia burns, but a recent report released indicated that it’s certainly not doing enough to punish the pulp and paper companies complicit in the widespread environmental destruction.

The report, released on January 20th by a coalition of nine Indonesian civil society organisations, looked at eight of Indonesia’s biggest pulp and paper companies—including industry giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and APRIL—and found that they were not living up to their promises to replant destroyed peatland and stop setting new fires.

The noxious effects of drained peatlands

In many ways, the report only confirmed what was made clear by the deadly haze that swept across the ASEAN region in 2019, blanketing skies from Sumatra to Singapore. At the heart of the problem? The fact that vast expanses of carbon-dense peatlands are drained for monoculture plantations of oil palm and acacia trees which the paper industry uses to make pulpwood.

Tropical peat can contain as much as 10 times more carbon than regular soil—and when peatland is drained, it dries into a hard, thick mass of carbon which can continue burning for months even if surface-level flames have been put out. As a result, these peatland plantations are extremely vulnerable to long-lasting fires producing huge amounts of toxic smoke and haze.

2019 marked the worst fires in Indonesia in years, with more than 800,000 acres scorched. The effects have been devastating—several species of endangered orangutans have been driven to the brink of starvation, skies have turned apocalyptic orange and the haze has inflicted acute respiratory conditions on more than a million people in Indonesia alone.

Economically speaking, meanwhile, in a span of 6 months, the forest fires have cost Indonesia some $5.2 billion—equivalent to 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product. On the environmental front, by releasing more than 708 million tons of CO2 emissions, Indonesia has become the 6th largest carbon emitter in the world.

Paper and pulp industry: the same old story

Most of the catastrophic 2019 fires can be traced back to the peatlands used as pulpwood by Indonesia’s two largest pulp producers –Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL). Amongst the individual concession areas in industry forest areas, for example, the highest number of fire alerts were recorded from APP’s affiliated supplier in the Southern Sumatra province.

After the disastrous forest fires which embroiled Indonesia in 2015— releasing more carbon than the annual emissions of large economies like Japan— the country’s major pulp producers, including APP and APRIL, pledged to clean up their act. In reality, however, they have failed to keep their promise to address the issue, and are only aggravating it by continuing to convert peatlands into plantations.

Between 2015 and 2018, these companies have burned an area equivalent to the size of Singapore. In spite of demands from environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance, the latest report confirmed they have not engaged in any substantial restoration of the damaged peatlands, crucial to prevent the release of carbon into the air.

APP, the region’s largest pulp and paper supplier, has singlehandedly cleared around 2 million hectares of rainforest home to wildlife such as tigers; elephants and orangutans. Several studies have shown that the deforestation and fires the company is responsible for have not only destroyed 80% of the critically endangered orangutans’ habitat but will have a long-lasting impact on their health — making the threat of their extinction real.

Social impact of the pulp industry’s rampage

Apart from these obvious environmental concerns, the Indonesian pulp industry’s activities have a huge social cost. In almost all of its pulpwood concessions, APP affiliates have unresolved conflicts with the local communities and stand accused of land grabbing, violent evictions and not respecting land boundaries. What’s more, the company has consistently failed to provide the mandated 20% of the concession area to the farmers for their subsistence farming. APRIL hasn’t fared any better—relations between the pulp giant and local communities have soured to the point that several Sumatran communities banded together to produce a film about their “David and Goliath” struggle against the paper company.

While local groups have filed several complaints against the paper firms, the Indonesian government has so far failed in helping them address their claims. In 2013, for example, a court decision gave back concessions previously controlled by APP to the land’s traditional indigenous holders. The paper giant, however, continues to dispute these people’s claims—as one activist explained, “We can see that Asia Pulp & Paper has broken their commitment. APP said that it would resolve social conflicts without violence and would respect the communities’ rights. However, we can prove that even after the commitment, the community is still intimidated”. Part  of the problem is that the Indonesian government does not have a specific mechanism to handle land conflicts stemming from blurry boundaries.

Following global outrage led by Greenpeace, more than 100 global companies had suspended their contracts with APP due to its environmental and social violations in Indonesia. This prompted APP to launch its Forest Conservation Policy in 2013 in which APP vowed to resolve its social conflicts with local communities.

However, a new study published by the Environmental Paper Network has shown just how short APP has fallen in fulfilling these promises to better engage with affected stakeholders and resolve conflicts. Citing the brutal murder of a community leader and farmer by one of APP’s security guards in 2015, Rainforest Alliance’s third-party monitoring study has concluded that APP’s operations have not changed for the better.

Government leniency facilitating pulp industry’s continuous rise

Holding APP and other big paper and pulp companies directly accountable is difficult for the government due to their convoluted and non-transparent corporate structures. APP, for example, is a part of a nebula of companies—including Paper Excellence and the massive Sinar Mas conglomerate—owned by the powerful Chinese-Indonesian Widjaja family.

APP receives its fibres from numerous wood plantations which might be labelled as ‘independent’ but are in fact controlled by the parent Sinar Mas group. By denying explicit links to many of the plantation’s companies supplying its pulpwood, APP tries to avoid deforestation charges and fines stemming from community violations—apart from enjoying other fiscal benefits.

But even this convoluted company structure does not excuse the Indonesian government’s failure to strictly enforce its conservation regulations, in spite of international campaigns against the activities of Indonesian pulp and paper companies. Environmental group the Anti -Forest Mafia Coalition has accused the government of facilitating the industry’s overuse of the peatlands by overturning earlier regulations that required companies to engage in peatland restoration.

Time and again, Indonesian paper pulp and paper companies such as APP and APRIL have broken the promises they made to the Indonesian government and its people. As a result, toxic haze from the forest fires the paper industry has created has spread to neighbouring countries, millions of hectares of forests have been swiped out, local wildlife is endangered and untold farmers robbed of their land. It’s long past time that Jakarta impose serious sanctions on any of the major pulp and paper companies.