Indonesia: ‘We’re Victims, Too,’ Says Riau Pulp & Paper Executive

Blame Game: The head of pulp and paper giant April’s Riau unit says regulators too responsive to NGOs; should weaken peat protections
Kennial Caroline Laia Jakarta Globe 10 Dec 14;

Singapore. The top executive at the Riau subsidiary of Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper giant, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, says that although he’s willing to talk about the environmental damage his company has been accused of causing, environmental groups have never extended an invitation for dialogue — and that the government needs to loosen regulations for preserving peatland, restricting its development, if his industry is to thrive.

Kusnan Rahmin, president director of Riau Andalan Pulp & Paper (RAPP) says his company is all for a dialogue to find solutions for Riau’s fires, adding that there should be more progressive communication among stakeholders.

“We are open to talk about fires in Riau,” Kusnan said in Singapore last Thursday. “We’re open to any cooperation for solving fire problems in the area with any stakeholders — be it government, local and international nongovernmental organizations, or communities living in the area.”

While RAPP may be, in its top executive’s words, “open to any cooperation,” Kusnan has made clear what kind of cooperation he’d like to see: a regulatory process that favors his company and weakens environmental standards.

“We need a lot of support from the government in the form of regulations, infrastructure and the environment, because the government needs to support plantation companies like us,” Kusnan said, as quoted by news portal

“Support pulp and paper, not just the NGOs that exist to protest; [until now] if an NGO says ‘moratorium,’ the [government] directly [obliges] with a moratorium.”

One of the laws Kusnan complains inhibits the growth of Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry is regulation (peraturan pemerintah) number 71 on peatland management, which came onto the books in 2014.

That regulation establishes standard criteria for assessing peatland degradation: If the groundwater in the area is more than 40 centimeters below the peat’s surface and/or quartz or other sediments beneath the peat layer are exposed, the ecosystem is considered damaged, triggering possible penalties. The regulation also imposes a strict liability standard for those responsible for peatlands found to be damaged — for example by excess drainage or fire — and requires concession holders to conduct an environmental impact analysis before developing peatland areas.

Kusnan says his company plans to approach the Forestry Ministry about weakening or otherwise revising the regulation, which he believes was developed without consulting his industry.

“We have never been invited to any dialogues by those institutions who campaign for a clean environment, especially the latest one,” Kusnan said, referring to President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to Sungai Tohor village in Riau’s Meranti Islands, which has been severely affected by peat fires.

During his visit, Joko symbolically installed a water gate on a drainage canal surrounding a plot of peatland in Sungai Tohor. The president pledged to act against forest fires and prioritize people’s interests in finding solutions to fires on the island.

The Jakarta Globe could identify at least two corporations operating in the immediate vicinity of the site Joko visited: Lestari Unggul Makmur, which is affiliated with April’s Riau unit, RAPP; and Nasional Sago Prima, a subsidiary of Sampoerna Agro.

Kusnan denies claims that RAPP or agents acting on the company’s behalf have excessively drained peatland in Riau or intentionally set it ablaze to clear land for monoculture plantations.

“I have to confirm that we must be foolish to ignite fires in peatland or in forest. We don’t do that. In fact, how could we burn down land where we are operating? Our workers, our families, our assets are all there,” Kusnan said.

Watchdog group Eyes on the Forest is among those who dispute Kusnan’s claim.

“In June and October 2014, [Eyes on the Forest] visited the southern part of [RAPP’s Pulau Padang, Riau] concession and observed the company clearing forest, stacking newly cut natural forest logs and constructing canals to drain the peat for plantation development and to transport the natural forest logs to April’s pulp mill in Pangkalan Kerinci,” the group said in a report published on Dec. 1.

The Jakarta Globe’s requests to respond to these specific allegations were not returned as of press time.

RAPP disputed similar conclusions by a Greenpeace Indonesia report in July that found the company’s development of deep peatland areas in the same concession violated both government regulations and April’s own sustainable forest management policy. The company argued that it had met its obligations by completing an environmental impact study beforehand.

Kusnan said he and his company share a similar sense of victimhood as Riau’s residents, who complain of respiratory ailments from the peat fires’ persistent smoke and declining quality of the sago they grow.

“I have to say that we are also victims of these forest fires,” Kusnan says. “We felt a bit disappointed with the one-sided opinion in various media that often blame corporations as fully responsible for Riau’s fires.”

While the pulp and paper executive’s claim to victimhood might not sit too well with Riau residents — who during Joko’s visit were the ones accusing corporate concession-holders of intentionally degrading the peatland, and not the media — Kusnan insists he’s open to hearing from everyone.

“[We] actually welcome every stakeholder to talk with us,” Kusnan said. “Be it government or private organizations, we are pleased for criticism. Show us our mistakes and we will try as best as we can to fix it. Should there any lack of [comprehension toward the environment], we are also open for [any] education whatsoever.”

Much like the regulatory “cooperation” Kusnan hopes to see soon, the RAPP chief expressed a clear preference for the terms of the dialogue he would like to have: his own, no claims of responsibility attached.

“But it’s not the time for blaming each other,” Kusnan says. “It’s time for solutions. We fully understand that fires and drained peatland in Riau have become beyond bad. So, let’s cooperate to put out the fires.”

Zenzi Suhaidi, campaign manager for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), says he’s skeptical about corporations’ willingness or ability to communicate, citing what he says is an absence of outreach when they take over communities’ land.

“What happens in the field is that many corporations forcibly take over land from people,” Zenzi says. “Some communities have opposed handing over their land, but some corporations strain themselves to take it, leading to irresponsible actions.”

Kusnan has said his company has taken responsible actions by funding community fire management training.

“We are one of the companies that is active in educating farmers to clear land via sustainable alternatives instead of using fire. We have disbursed $6 million for fire management training in communities where we are operating,” Kusnan says.

But Zenzi says that’s not enough, and emphasized that his group has no plans to participate in dialogues with the company about solving Riau’s fire and haze problem. “Walhi mostly does its work according to people’s mandate, where the problem is rooted,” Zenzi said. “Walhi doesn’t work with corporations.”

Dialogue would be a wasted effort to Wahli, Zenzi says, since his group is clear on its solution: The government is fully responsible for issuing licenses to corporations, and this, he argues, is the root cause of forest and peatland destruction in Riau.

“The government has to ensure the area that is supposed to be owned by people is given back to people,” Zenzi says.

According to a document obtained by the Jakarta Globe, corporations have acquired more than 10 million hectares of forest over the last 10 years. Between 2007 and 2011, 14 million operating licenses were issued to forest, palm and mining firms.

But according Kusnan, only 5.5 million hectares have so far been planted. “That 10 million hectares has not yet been fully developed,” he said. It appears, then, that growing pains may be unavoidable — either for industry or environment, or both.