APP should focus on preventing peatland fires, pay for damage

Today Online 2 May 16;

I thank Mr Jose Raymond for his letter “APP committed to stopping haze and zero deforestation” (April 27), which was a response to my earlier letter “Tackling new mills a key way to stop the haze at source” (April 23).

In his letter, Mr Raymond acknowledged the link between land clearance and the production of forest commodities, and cited Asia Pulp and Paper’s (APP) Forest Conservation Policy to defend the company’s new OKI mill in South Sumatra. But he did not address any of our concerns in detail. First, Mr Raymond suggested that part of the new mill’s supply will come from increased yields in existing plantations. However, he did not provide evidence that yields can improve sufficiently to catch up with APP’s 50 per cent increase in wood demand with the new OKI mill.

Second, Mr Raymond said APP is conducting research to identify new plant species that can thrive in wet peatland conditions. But the OKI mill is scheduled to start operations this year, and how much any new species will actually contribute to APP’s supply remains unclear.

Third, Mr Raymond said APP is supporting communities to reduce poverty and to provide them with alternative livelihoods. Yet, APP continues to blame communities for setting fires, and social conflict remains a major issue that APP has yet to properly address.

Fourth, Mr Raymond suggested that part of the woodchip supply may come from plantations outside Indonesia without specifying these potential suppliers.

In summary, APP’s response largely repeats the old and vague messages that have been refuted by the joint report released on April 20 by 12 international and Indonesian non-governmental organisations (NGOs), “Will Asia Pulp & Paper default on its zero deforestation commitment?”.

The transboundary haze suffered by the people of Singapore last year was largely due to peatland fires on APP’s concessions. Although there is no official cost estimate of the damage caused by these fires, it is definitely a very significant figure.

The joint NGO report conservatively estimated that fires on APP’s concessions in South Sumatra alone generated 197 million tonnes of emissions in 2015. Estimating the price of carbon at US$20 (S$27) per tonne CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), APP would need to pay US$4 billion.

Why is APP not focusing on fire prevention and paying for the damage first before further expanding production? Even without fire, carbon-rich peatland releases carbon dioxide when it is drained for acacia (paper) plantations. For each five-year cycle of acacia plantation on peatland, the emission is roughly the same as clearing a forest with an area five times that of the plantation. This also applies to other pulp and paper companies that grow acacia on peatland, such as APRIL Group.

The Indonesian peatland restoration agency has encouraged pulp and paper companies to switch to species suitable for wet peatlands. Although this may reduce the yield of pulpwood in the short term, it is a mandatory step to create a long-term solution to haze and climate change.

APP working with stakeholders as part of its forest conservation policy
Today Online 5 May 16;

We thank Mr Chris Cheng for his letter “APP should focus on preventing peatland fires, pay for damage” (May 2) and will address the specific concerns he raised.

He cited a lack of evidence showing that yield from our existing plantations and new species being developed will meet the full demand of the new OKI mill in South Sumatra.

As I had set out in an earlier reply, “APP committed to stopping haze and zero deforestation” (April 27), this point is immaterial.

We have pledged firmly, as part of our forest conservation policy, to never use natural forest fibre in our mills. The mill will run on available supply of plantation fibre; if that supply is inadequate, we will adjust production accordingly. Since we made our zero-deforestation commitment, in February 2013, to stop using natural forest fibre in our production, we have not deviated from it.

Mr Cheng asked that we specify our potential woodchip sources in the event of any shortfall in supplies from our plantations. This is business-sensitive information that would give our competitors a commercial advantage if disclosed publicly. As far as we are aware, even sustainability reporting guidelines do not request companies to mandatorily report potential suppliers.

On the issue of peatlands, we are following the guidance set by the Indonesian government, and we are supporting the Peatland Restoration Agency to establish ecosystem restoration models.

With regard to communities, it is well established that slash-and-burn practices used by unauthorised parties and some smallholders are a cause of fires. Some smallholders resort to this mostly owing to a lack of choice: They do not have access to more sophisticated methods of land clearance.

In attempting to tackle one of the main causes of forest fires, we will continue working with communities to educate and support them in alternative methods of land clearance and to find them alternative sources of living through our agro-forestry programmes.

Likewise, we are working to establish an inclusive framework to help resolve social conflicts between stakeholders in the landscape — a key pillar of our forest conservation policy.

Fire prevention, in the context of landscape-level forest conservation, remains a priority. So far, we have invested US$20 million (S$27 million) in fire prevention and suppression efforts following last year’s haze episode. Tackling fires, however, must be part of a wider strategy to protect the environment and empower communities, as the underlying causes of fires and deforestation are similar: Peatland degradation, slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal encroachment and land conflict.

A long-term solution to fires can be found only by addressing these issues, which is what we have been doing with our partners for the last three years as part of our forest conservation policy.

I invite Mr Cheng to work with us in finding long-term solutions to the challenges discussed.

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