Asia

Unlikely 'champion' in battle for Indonesia's forests

A view of stumps in a recently deforested area owned by a subsidiary of the April group (picture from July 2014) Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A recent report found Indonesia was losing its forests at a faster rate than any other country

One of the world's largest pulp and paper producers announced on Wednesday that it had stopped clearing forests as part of its operations - but the battle to stop deforestation is still far from won, as Alice Budisatrijo reports from Jakarta.

The firm, April, controls a million hectares of forests in Indonesia, and has now said it will allocate nearly half of it for conservation. The environmental group Greenpeace, which has previously been a fierce critic of the company, now called it a "champion" and vowed to closely monitor the implementation of the new policy.

When April launched its sustainable policy last year, which included a pledge to halt forest clearing in 2020, environmental groups said it was "too little too late."

Earlier this year, Greenpeace published photographs of logging and draining of peatland by an April subsidiary, contrasting it with the policy of April's largest competitor, Asia Pulp & Paper, which had committed itself to stop sourcing material from natural forests from 2013.

But when asked whether the company had decided to accelerate its forest conservation plan because of social pressure, Anderson Tanoto, a director and son of the founder of April's parent company RGE, insisted that it was for its long-term survival.

"We want to only commit to something that we're able to do," he said. "We have to ensure that we can actually protect the forests. So we don't feel like we're pressured by the market but we believe that this is fundamentally the right thing to do."

Image caption Mr Maitar (right) of Greenpeace and RGE director Mr Tanoto are unlikely allies - for now

Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaigner Bustar Maitar said the group's support of the paper producer's new policy was not set in stone.

"We put Greenpeace's credibility on the line to ensure the implementation of this policy," Maitar said.

"If one day April violates its commitment, Greenpeace will not hesitate to pull out our support. We only want to make sure that there will be no more clearing of natural forests."

Uphill struggle

Indonesia has the third largest tropical rainforest in the world, and a recent report found that it was losing it faster than any other country.

Despite the pressing need, Indonesian forestry laws are still seen to favour production over conservation.

Ida Bagus Putra Parthama, a director general at the forestry ministry, praised April for the new policy, but said he did not see any urgency to require more loggers to do the same.

"If what April does works and the company can still be competitive, we may try to duplicate it for other companies, but we still have to look into whether we can require companies to conserve more," he said.

Activists say that even if the government imposes a stricter no-deforestation rule, it is unlikely to be able to enforce it because of Indonesia's low conservation budget and poor law-enforcement capacity.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Conservationists are alarmed at how quickly Indonesia is losing its forests

To make the maximum impact on reducing Indonesia's deforestation, environmentalists are pushing big corporations to commit to saving the forests and ensuring all levels in their supply chains adhere to the same policy.

"Even conservation land in Indonesia is still felled, sometimes it is unclear by who," says Nyoman Iswarayoga of WWF Indonesia. "So we ask big companies to not buy from any third party that cut down forests."

The island of Sumatra, where April has the bulk of its operations, has lost 75% of its forests, mostly because of oil palm cultivation. Most of Indonesia's remaining forests lie on the islands of Kalimantan and Papua, which are rich in oil, coal and minerals.

Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil, fifth largest of coal, and tenth largest of pulp and paper. Balancing the need to increase production and preserve the environment continues to be a delicate task for the government.

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