The website of PaperOne features pictures of tropical forests and a claim that the copy paper company is “protecting high conservation values”.
On the ground in Sumatra, though, the chainsaws and excavators are rushing to mow down tropical forest on delicate peat swamp to feed fibre to its mills.
As consumer pressure built on companies to improve their environmental credentials, PaperOne’s maker, Indonesian company Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), announced in January a commitment to stop logging “high conservation value” areas and peat swamp, to stop establishing plantations by the end of this year and to get all its fibre from plantations by 2020.
It formed a partnership with environmental group WWF and announced the endorsement of the Norwegian ambassador (whose country has pledged $1 billion towards ending deforestation in Indonesia).
On the fragile environment of Padang Island, off the east coast of Sumatra, though, the deadline has prompted a new effort to clear what is left.
“APRIL’s commitments mean nothing,” says Zul Fahmi, Greenpeace’s forest campaign leader for Indonesia. “It’s just confirmation that they still intend to destroy forests until 2019.”
The company’s big competitor, Asia Pulp and Paper, won plaudits last year for stopping the use of natural timber in its mills.
In January, APRIL, owned by Chinese-Indonesian businessman Sukanto Tanoto, responded with a new “sustainable forest management policy”. But, under the policy, it can keep cutting forest inside its concessions until the end of the year and still use mixed tropical hardwood – taken from natural forest – until 2020. APRIL has not said where it will source that wood except from “limited-term suppliers vetted by APRIL” to ensure compliance with their policy.
Campaigners fear that, by 2020, too much of the Sumatran forest, with its endangered orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros and elephants, will be gone.
Late in May, this reporter saw from the air a dozen or more heavy machines at work on peat swamp on the low-lying island off Sumatra’s fire and haze ravaged Riau region.
Canals, which are dug to drain the swamp, speared deep into forest, dividing the island into geometrical agricultural segments. Between the canals, every plant except individual ramin trees (which are protected) are cut to the ground, dragged into piles and loaded on barges.
Villagers say monkeys and wild pigs are starving and seeking food on their land, and that chemicals sprayed to kill weeds have also killed the fish in the river.
Hectares of uniform acacia plantation will replace the tropical rainforest.
Indonesian law is supposed to protect carbon-rich peat, but it does not. The peat on this island – 15 metres deep in some places and laid down over thousands of years – will drain, dry and decompose, releasing its millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Dry peat is also susceptible to the burning that releases the toxic haze that has coated Singapore and Malaysia in recent years.
In nearby APRIL concessions in Riau, it is clear from the air that extensive areas have been recently burnt, though there is no suggestion the company lit the fires.
Scientists believe it is also a medium-term investment, at best. As the peat on Padang Island decays, the land subsides, meaning that, in 50 years, the island is likely to be at or under sea level and useless for cultivation.
According to APRIL’s spokesman, all this work is legal and fully in accord with the company’s own commitments.
“We are currently developing our last new plantation in an area of Pulau Padang licensed by the Indonesian government,” the spokesman said. “Our policy mandates that the work will be completed by December . . . So if one of your questions is ‘are you violating your own policy?’, the answer is ‘no’.”
Trees and animals, though, are not the only thing at stake. Padang Island contains 13 villages, some of whose inhabitants have protested for years about the destruction of their forests and, with it, their livelihoods.
In 2011, residents went to Jakarta to protest against the politicians who issued the concessions – 28 villagers sewed their lips shut.
Until recently, APRIL observed a moratorium on levelling the trees in parts of their concession area because of local concerns. The company spokesman said, however, that had recently ended because “the government subsequently gave the go-ahead to proceed”.
This was news to Budi Wardhana, the director of sustainability at WWF, which has joined the company’s stakeholder advisory committee to guide its new policy. Budi says APRIL’s policy is good, but “the implementation is different from the policy as it’s written”.
WWF has already drawn attention to what it sees as a breach in a high conservation value area in Borneo. It also intends to investigate the work on Padang Island, Budi said. The company, according to him, is “still in the phase of learning by doing”.
On May 17, a group of locals went into the concession area to protest against that a disputed area of forest was being razed when there was supposed to have been more discussion. One villager, Ares Fadila, was punched in the head by police.
“The villagers asked [the concession holder] to stop their canal construction works, but the contractor said they couldn’t because they have a deadline to meet,” Zul said.
The deadline, obviously, is when the company will start living up to the pledge PaperOne spruiks on its green-tinged website.
But, for the forest inside its concession on Padang Island, that will already be too late.