Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Ecological disaster looms
for forests of Sumatra

In only a few years, logging and agribusiness have cut Indonesia’s vast rainforest by half. Last week the government renewed a moratorium on deforestation, but it may already be too late for the endangered animals — and for the people whose lives lie in ruin

By John Vidal  /  The Observer

Mursyi Ali from the village of Kuala Cenaku in the province of Riau has spent 10 years fighting oil plantation companies which were awarded a giant concession.

“Maybe 35,000 people have been impacted by their plantations. Everyone is very upset. People have died in protests. I have not accepted defeat yet. These conflicts are going on everywhere. Before the companies came we had a lot of natural resources, like honey, rattan, fish, shrimps and wood,” he said.

Greenpeace and other groups accuse the giant pulp and palm companies of trashing tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest a year, but the companies respond that they are the forest defenders and without them the ecological devastation would be worse.

“There has been a rampant escalation of the denuding of the landscape, but it is mostly by migrant labor and palm oil growers. Poverty and illegal logging along with migrant labor have caused the deforestation,” April spokesman David Goodwin said.

“What April does is not deforestation. In establishing acacia plantations in already-disturbed forest areas, it is contributing strongly to reforestation. Last year April planted more than 100 million trees. Deforestation happens because of highly organized illegal logging, slash-and-burn practices by migrant labor, unregulated timber operations. There has been a explosion of palm oil concessions,” Goodwin said.

The company would not reveal how much rainforest it and its suppliers fell each year, but internal papers seen by the Observer show that it planned to deforest 60,000 hectares of rainforest last year, but postponed this pending the moratorium. It admits that it has a concession of 20,000 hectares of forest that it has permission to fell and that it takes up to one-third of its timber from “mixed tropical hardwood” for its giant pulp and paper mill near Penabaru in Riau.

There are some signs of hope. The heat is now on other large palm oil and paper companies after Asia Pacific Resources International (APP), one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, was persuaded this year by international and local Indonesian groups to end all rainforest deforestation and to rely solely on its plantations for its wood.

The company, which admits to having felled hundreds of thousands of acres of Sumatran forest in the past 20 years, had been embarrassed and financially hurt when other global firms including Adidas, Kraft, Mattel, Hasbro, Nestle, Carrefour, Staples and Unilever dropped products made by APP that had been made with rainforest timber.

“We thought that if we adopted national laws to protect the forest, that this would be enough, but it clearly was not. We realized something was not right and that we needed a much higher standard. So now we will stop the deforestation, whatever the cost. We are now convinced that the long-term benefits will be greater,” APP Sustainability Director Aida Greenbury said. “Yes. We got it wrong. We could not have done worse.”

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