'It will take time to build up trust again': Asia Pulp and Paper's Jose Raymond

938LIVE reports: Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jose Raymond goes "On the Record" with Bharati Jagdish about how the company, which had its products pulled off the shelves at the height of the haze in Singapore last year, is working to tackle the issue of fires.

Bharati Jagdish, 938LIVE Channel NewsAsia 20 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE: When the former chief executive of the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) Jose Raymond joined Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) as Vice President of Corporate Affairs, many had asked if he had joined the “dark side”; just as many would remember APP as a company that was, at the height of the haze in Singapore last year, issued with a legal request for information under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

APP is the largest concession holder in Indonesia, and while NGOs still report hotspots on their land, organisations such as Greenpeace report that APP is taking steps to address the issue. The issue of fires and resultant haze is clearly complex, involving various parties and issues related to land governance. At the height of the haze in 2015, as supermarkets pulled APP products off its shelves, the focus was nonetheless on APP and its practices.

Jose Raymond went "On the Record" with Bharati Jagdish, and started first by talking about reactions to his joining APP, and if he had “sold out”.

Jose Raymond: Well, I had expected that there will be such a response. When I left the media to join public service, already my friends had said: "Why are you joining the dark side?"

But it's all about new experiences, learning something different, seeing how life is from different set of lenses, understanding new perspectives. And, in the process, you learn something and you're able to share that with others, so that's why I took up this role.

Bharati: You talk about seeing things from different perspectives. Now, from the perspective of the ordinary man in the street, this is what it may look like - from being an advocate for the environment, you have now joined a company whose business practices are suspect.

APP may not be conclusively guilty, and there have been some reports that indeed APP has done quite a bit to address the issue, but there have also been reports from NGOs that a lot of the hotspots in Indonesia belong to APP. So, obviously there's a trust issue here. Why would you join a company that is facing trust issues when you are actually an advocate for the environment?

Jose Raymond: I've known APP since the time I was in the Singapore Environment Council. I've known of their policies which had been in place, and they actually have been ahead of the curve. For example, they have had a no-burning policy since 1996, and in 2013, they announced a new forest conservation policy.

Bharati: APP’s sustainability spokeswoman Aida Greenbury said in another media interview that it took some time for the corporate entity to understand the importance of sustainability, but they started to in that period only because of pressure from green groups.

Jose Raymond: I've trusted what they have been trying to do. Sometimes it's very easy to sit on the side and find fault, but if a company has started on a journey, I find it a lot better to help them along, find ways to move them along that journey, because when you help one company get on the journey, a green journey, and then you influence others to follow suit, that's how you have that chain effect.

They were the first company to put their concession maps and suppliers online for public scrutiny. No other company in Indonesia has done that. Why would a company put all its concessions, all its maps online if they had something to hide?


Bharati: But only recently, in fact, late last year, a coalition of NGOs in Indonesia, "Eyes on the Forest", released a report showing satellite imagery of recent fires in three large APP supplier concessions in South Sumatra, one of the areas worse affected by the fires. And it doesn't make you look good in spite of the fact that you’re saying you’re taking steps to address the problem.

Jose Raymond: No one's denying that there are hotspots. The question is, why are there hotspots? What's happening on the ground? Have there been other issues on the ground? We know that winds have blown fires outside of concessions into our concessions - there are many issues on the ground. I think there's no denying that there were hotspots. The question which we all need to answer is why are there these hotspots?

Bharati: So are you saying that you were not responsible for any of these hotspots?

Jose Raymond: APP has had a no burning policy in place since 1996, and they strictly abide by this policy.

Bharati: It is a policy on paper, but you still need to explain why, on the ground, you’re still having issues. Why are the hotspots on APP concessions? APP supplier concessions?

Jose Raymond: Various issues. One, social conflict. Land clearance by villagers and communities, fires which start outside of the concessions, winds which blow, and peatland is highly combustible. When it becomes too big, too much ... The moment the fire starts, it's very hard to try to put them out; and I think when we saw the extent of the fires last year, across Indonesia, it went on for months. It was just beyond control. Made worse by very, very hot weather.

I think right now the strategy has to be prevention, more than trying to manage. So what we are doing - peat canal blocking - where we hydrate the peatlands, create these canals across our concession to protect our concessions from fires coming inside, and also to have access to water all year round. And so, in the event there are any fires five kilometres within our boundaries, we send a team in and put the fires out very quickly.

So prevention actually is a much better strategy, apart from purchasing new thermal imaging airplanes and water bombing capabilities, and having more professionals on the ground to help our villagers or village firemen to help.


Bharati: The Singapore Environment Council, last year, at the height of the haze, suspended the Green Label Certification, and supermarkets removed APP products from the shelves. You were no longer at the Environment Council at that time. If you had been, I take it you wouldn’t have taken that action?

Jose Raymond: I felt it was unfair. Because there has been no clear understanding of what's happening on the ground.

Bharati: But Singaporeans too feel it is unfair for us to have to deal with the haze year after year. The NEA issued a request for information from APP, so there was a lot of suspicion. You yourself as VP of Finance for the Singapore Swimming Association at that time, said that you intend to sue the companies linked to the haze because it caused you to cancel some vital events, but you didn’t.

Jose Raymond: Wait for hard evidence. There had only been a request for information under section 9 and 10 of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act. Section 9 is about asking companies what they're doing to put out fires in the concessions. Section 10 is about asking information about the company and its subsidiaries. That was actually it.

Bharati: So APP was wrongly accused, wrongly blacklisted?

Jose Raymond: I think there's no denying that there were fires in our concessions. The issue is, why were there fires? Was the boycott of our products unfair? I would say so. I would say it's unfair because I don't think there is a clear understanding of what's happening on the ground, and APP has actually been collaborative and cooperative with our request for information under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

We've been asked for information on what we've done to put out the fires. We've submitted the information. We've been asked questions on our subsidiaries and our suppliers, and we've given that information as well, and I think that's what Minister Masagos (Zulkifli) has said in Parliament in the last sitting.

Bharati: But, there is still a climate of distrust. People don't trust large organisations like APP. What do you have to say to that?

Jose Raymond: I think it'll always be easy to point a finger at the big companies. But you see, it doesn't make sense for a company to have spent millions and millions, and continue to spend millions in fire prevention, and in purchasing equipment, and in greening their supply chain, to want to end up burning their own supplies.

I mean, there was another recent report that said that 26 per cent of APP's supplies are from acacia damaged during the fires. Now why would a company, why would we want to burn our own supplies when it actually affects our yield? And then, in order to make up for this shortage, we'll have to procure them from overseas suppliers. That will not make sense. Why would any company want to do that?

Bharati: Fact is, though, the ordinary man in the street doesn't know really what's going on in Indonesia. Not everyone's going to fly into Indonesia to see what's going on, while you may say the issue is complex and no doubt many environmentalists concede this as well. It’s a complicated issue, but surely you have a responsibility here too that you cannot shirk.


Jose Raymond: Which is why last year when the fires hit Indonesia, APP went out. Our fire fighters on the ground were trying to put out the fires 24/7. It brought in extra capabilities, a lot more water bombing capabilities. Spent a lot more money to put out the fires. This year, a lot of the emphasis has been about prevention. I think prevention is a much better strategy for any company when it comes to fires in Indonesia. So which is why (there is) canal blocking, which helps to wet the peatlands, the added thermal imaging aircraft, water bombing capabilities.

Firefighters, experts from Canada and South Africa were on the ground to help our local firefighters, as well as the village community firefighters. Prevention would be a much better strategy moving forward.

Bharati: But why are you only doing this now? We’ve had haze issues for decades now. Why only after your products were pulled off the shelves did APP say, "Okay, maybe we should do something about it, or we should make more transparent what we have been doing." Why so reactionary?

Jose Raymond: I think it's unprecedented. Sometimes, we have to go through the worst-case scenarios in order for us to react.

Bharati: It does seem like a very reactionary approach. Couldn’t you have been more proactive?

Jose Raymond: The company went on its journey, a green journey, in 2013, when it announced its forest conservation policies. It takes time to start making a lot of changes. It takes time, you know, to start putting blocks in place. It takes time to bring in experts. And we're not talking about a small plot of land here. We're talking about 2.6 million hectares across Indonesia. And don't forget, in order to green the supply chain, we also work with a lot of independent suppliers, and having them change, it's also a challenge.

Having the villagers and the communities change, and understanding those issues, and that you cannot have business as usual, also takes time.

Because of the complexities of land concession ownership, we can have the best practices in Indonesia, but if everyone around us, around our concessions are still adopting age-old tactics, it's still business as usual.

It's still the same old issue because fires will still continue, and if the wind blows another direction, it will still come to Singapore. But, you see, we alone cannot do it. We need solutions, and the solutions would be a landscape management where everyone around us, whoever owns concessions, governments, NGOs, neighbouring countries. There need to be solutions which help everybody.

Bharati: In a nutshell, what would you then say is the sum total of APP's responsibility here? Are you saying you’re doing nothing wrong?

Jose Raymond: As of now, I can safely say that we've had a no-burning policy in place, and our suppliers, and our supply chain are meant to adhere to that policy strictly.

Bharati: Speaking of your suppliers, we talked about how the Indonesian government has been taking action as well. It has suspended the licenses of some of your suppliers. I understand that entities such as Bumi Mekar Hijau are no longer your suppliers?

Jose Raymond: I think they were disengaged the moment they were ... they were accused. So they have been disengaged but ... if I'm not wrong, the courts in Java -

Bharati: - have thrown out the case.

Jose Raymond: Thrown out the case.

Bharati: How do you feel about court decisions like that? NGOs are up-in-arms about this.

Jose Raymond: I guess for us, we respect the rule of the law and it's hard for us to comment on what the judge decides. And I think we trust, just like in Singapore, we trust the rule of law, we trust that the judges will make the best decision in the interest of the people.

Bharati: While it’s true that Bumi Mekar Hijau has not been proven guilty, you only took action to disengage them after the government suspended their license. Why is it that you don’t seem know what your suppliers are doing on the ground, or maybe you did know, but chose not to take action till the government got involved - some people might think that.

Jose Raymond: We continue to stay engaged with our suppliers on the ground. You know there are meetings, there are visits. We audit them.

Bharati: So why is it that you didn't know that an entity like Bumi Mekar Hijau, for instance, could have been a culprit?

Jose Raymond: The fact is, there were fires in suppliers’ concessions. Question is, why were the fires being started?

Bharati: But the question is how is it that you didn’t even red-flag these suppliers or say too much about them publicly in spite of the fact that they are clearly under suspicion and you didn’t say anything in spite of your audits until the government took action against them.

Jose Raymond: Because we've made a point to inform all our suppliers that there is to be zero burning of our land.

Bharati: But shouldn't you be more proactive about compliance, instead of waiting for the government agencies to tell you that they suspect the supplier of wrongdoing. There seems to be a pattern here of only reactionary action on APP’s part.

Jose Raymond: If we find out that any of our suppliers, for some reason or another, cause any kind of harm to our land, they will be disengaged. But you see, we've got various policies in place. We have audits, we have whistle-blowing policies, to be engaged with the community, the villagers, the ground. If they are told, if we are told, anyone has got access to us. If at all we hear anything from any one of them, we will actually get to action.

Bharati: So why is it that you didn't know about an entity like Bumi Mekar Hijau till the government took some action against them?

Jose Raymond: The investigations are still ongoing, right? So how do we accuse any company or any supplier when there's no, there's no hard evidence in front of us?

Bharati: But what action are you taking to get that hard evidence? It would seem that while you have these policies on paper, they are sometimes just that - policies on paper - but no real perceptible action.

Jose Raymond: The amount of land we're talking about is vast. How do we gather evidence? How much investigation do we have? And how do we actually conclusively, say that you are guilty. So it actually just shows you one thing. It is very complicated.


Bharati: So what is your plan to overcome this, to show that these are not merely policies on paper, that you’re not turning a blind eye to suppliers’ transgressions, that you are proactive?

Jose Raymond: Continuous engagement, and to also remind them that they've got to keep their eye out, and they've got a responsibility, and they must adhere to our policies. They must adhere to our policy and that's non-negotiable. I'll share this with you. They can't act unless there's a report of a fire, and the reports are usually made either to the company directly, or to the police, or to the military. And usually we rely on the villagers, we rely on the communities living in those areas, because they are the ones who are going to be affected.

All our concessions and our community engagement teams work with the communities on the ground.

There are also other issues when it comes to fires - illegal encroachment. There are also villagers from outside the concessions coming into our area, slashing trees, using it for firewood.

Sometimes little issues cause fires. It's so hard. It's so hard to ascertain how fires actually start. There are so many possibilities. And how do we take action? How do we find out?

I think we are all about wanting to be proactive, trying to take an errant supplier to task, but again, we need information, and we need to have hard evidence in front of us to actually be able to take action. And in the absence of that, we’ve got to rely on our audits.

Bharati: Maybe you also need to improve your audit process.

Jose Raymond: I think greening a supply chain will take time. Ask any company which has gone on this green journey, they'll tell you that it takes years to build in a culture, not just within one company, but if you have got multiple companies in your supply chain, it takes time to change all that, to green your supply chain.

Bharati: But this problem, as I mentioned earlier, has been going on for decades. There is an understanding that there are factors beyond your control, but you can’t not be proactive because of that.

In addition to the things you’ve mentioned, there are also the small-holders to consider. And since you say you are as proactive as you can be, aren’t you doing anything to help the communities there aside from education, giving them incentives, alternatives to slash and burn agriculture?

Jose Raymond: The social community engagement on the ground, with the villagers and communities, are critical to our success because there is this thing called the “free, prior and informed consent” of all the communities within our concession.

What we've done with many of the communities and the villages within our concessions is to help them, to provide them with new ideas for farming, which help them with their yield. Help them earn a lot more money than whatever they've been doing in the past.

We also provide them with training. There’s a community engagement centre in Riau, which I was at two weeks ago, which helped them with fruit-planting, and teaching them how to plant fruits which will help them with their yield.

There are many ways in which we're trying to help on the ground; but ultimately, we're not talking about urbanised societies here. We're talking about people who have been living off the land for decades and decades and years and years and, helping them to get out of their little villages already is a challenge.

And to help them change something, or to change tactics, which their grandfather, and their fathers taught them, is also going to take time. There is no overnight solution. It will take time.

Bharati: How would you convince the average man in the street that you are sincere?

Jose Raymond: It will take time to build up trust again. We'll just need to keep chipping at it, and going at it, and continuing.


Bharati: Much has been said about the challenges Indonesia faces in terms of enforcing its laws on this issue. What role are you going to play here?

Jose Raymond: I have faith in Widodo’s government. Norway just recently announced a US$50 million package to help Indonesia restore the burnt peatland, and one of the prerequisites was that Indonesia have a peatland management agency, which I think the government of Indonesia has committed to.

Now, I think the fact is that the President himself realises that there's an issue which needs to be settled, which needs to be really sorted out and with solutions at the table.

APP will always be there at the table to help, because as the largest concessionaire in Indonesia, I think it's important and imperative for us to be there and to actually help in this entire process. And I think there is conviction, and not just in the company, but I think in Indonesian government as well, that there needs to be change.

Bharati: Why are you so confident that they will change?

Jose Raymond: Because I think there's international pressure. And I think the government of Indonesia knows that they've also got the livelihoods of their own people to look after.

So I think that's important for them, and I think they do recognise it, and when it affects beyond boundaries, beyond borders, it becomes a problem.

Bharati: President Widodo was quoted as saying that this could take two to three years to resolve. What's your assessment?

Jose Raymond: The fact that the President has actually said that two to three years to settle this issue makes us confident that it will happen. As long as there's conviction from the top, it should happen.

But it may probably be slightly longer than that because the extent of the problem is massive and Indonesia is a huge place. And to have every single company, small holders, communities change their practices overnight is not going to happen. Hard to estimate.

Bharati: You talked about the complexity of the issue. What’s next in terms of resolving this problem including the problem of errant companies?

Jose Raymond: A lot of it also depends on laws of the land. And we all know that land governance issues in Indonesia have been very complex, and they still remain complex, and that's what needs to be settled or sorted out.

So a policy or practice which has been in place for 50, 60, 70 years, would obviously need to be changed, and it starts right at the top.

And we've said that before. The current management of land in Indonesia is not sustainable. And I think we're not the only ones who have said it. Academics, NGOs, they've all said it.

I've been bringing a couple of journalists up to Indonesia to have them understand what's happening on the ground.

Secondly, we want to try and explain to the Singaporean public the land complexities, land governance, in as simple a way as possible.

So we're working on graphics to get the message across, reaching out, one-on-one engagement with NGOs. Many of our stakeholders including our buyers, companies which have stopped buying from us as well.

We're reaching out to them, and explaining to them what we're doing, issues on the ground.

And I think also on a very different level, I believe even at a G2G (government to government) level, this issue will probably be discussed at some point - the issue of the boycott - because it does affect trade.

That's one of the reasons why we've been advocating this landscape management approach, where we work with everyone, not just within our concessions, but outside of it, because it's like a huge jigsaw, and the jigsaw needs to fall into place for land governance laws to be properly administered.

So it's not black-and-white, which is why we have to head down to our concessions. We've protected our concessions with canal blocking - that's really a clear demarcation of who owns what.

Bharati: Moving forward, let's just talk about the overall sustainability of this business of making paper products. There’s a big push now towards greener forms of energy. As an environmentalist, how are you reconciling such initiatives with working in a company whose survival and prosperity is dependent on people’s demands for paper products increasing?

Jose Raymond: In emerging economies, as long as there's always a demand for paper … don't forget, there's also tissue. There are some things which are still very cultural. People need tissue for various reasons, for cleanliness, for hygiene. It will never happen overnight, and there's another issue about emerging economies and people who are moving up. And there's going to be added demand there too.

Bharati: But as an environmentalist wouldn’t you say, let's try and make sure that the demand goes down over the years. However, in this particular case, as a person working for such a corporate entity, it wouldn't be in your company’s interest for demand to decrease over the years.

Jose Raymond: It’s about doing the business sustainably, and not clearing new land, only using land which has been used before for plantations, using technology to extract higher yield, using technology to make sure the process is a lot smoother, getting the best out of your wood chips. I think that's sustainability. It's about making sure that the environment is not damaged, making sure that there's no deforestation. And it's about using what's already available.
Bharati: So, you're sort of resigned to the fact that yeah, there is demand, we're supplying it, let's just try and do it the best way we can.

Jose Raymond: And get the highest yield possible from what's available.

Bharati: You sound less idealistic than when I spoke to you when you were chief of the Singapore Environment Council.

Jose Raymond: I still use as little paper as possible. Or if necessary, none. Try not to write on stuff and try not to print. Print double-sided if necessary.

Bharati: But would you still advocate things like that?

Jose Raymond: Of course, I still do.

Bharati: In spite of the fact that you work for a paper company?

Jose Raymond: Yes, still do. But, you know, those are personal choices. If I'm around my friends or my colleagues, I'll tell them, why are you printing so much? There are some harsh realities. Sometimes when you move forward you realise that the world is a far greater place. There are a lot of things which are sometimes beyond your control and where we have got to make the best of it.

I had this interesting conversation with a friend of mine who is still in the NGO space, and she said sometimes, it's better to try and help, because there is a bigger picture.

There's a bigger picture, and what we are doing now as part of a large company, is we help communities. By helping companies see that there's the interest of this community at stake, we're helping them to not just see things from their own perspective, but see through the lenses of various groups, various people.

- 938LIVE/ec

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