The bog barons: Indonesia's carbon catastrophe (Part 2)

EoF News / 05 December 2007

By Fred Pearce, New Scientist magazine -- 1 December 2007 (part 2)

APRIL and APP have built two of the world's largest pulp mills in the jungle near Pangkalan Kerinci - now a town of 50,000. On the way to Kerinci, I passed 44-wheel "road trains" carrying acacia logs, which run on company roads because they are too heavy and dangerous for public roads. They supply APRIL's mill alone with 22,000 tonnes of timber a day, much of which is turned into the company's main paper brand, PaperOne.
Having logged thousands of square kilometres of easily accessible forests, the two companies have moved on to swamp forests. Some 60 per cent of APRIL's concessions are now on peat. The companies are installing huge networks of canals to gain access, clear-felling the forests and replacing them with acacia trees. Acacia grows spectacularly well here - up to 25 metres in five years, at which point they are harvested. The companies can sell their products cheaply, outcompeting others around the world.
Acacia, however, can grow on peatland only if it is kept drained. Peatland scientist Jonathan Bathgate, who works for APRIL, is candid about the carnage his company has wreaked in recent years. He explained the loss of peat to me as we cruised canals in a newly exploited patch of western Kampar, passing barges carrying timber out of the bog.
This 100-square-kilometre patch is likely to be the first of many to be drained across the 4000-square-kilometre Kampar peatland in the next few years. Its surface has collapsed by more than a metre in the past five years, resulting in carbon losses of about 1800 tonnes per hectare. And if development continues as expected, the peat surface could go down by over 5 metres within 25 years, according to an unpublished report for APRIL by the UK-based consultancy ProForest.

Some say that the loss of forest and haemorrhaging of CO2 from peat bogs is a reasonable price to pay for the development of the world's fourth most populous country. After all, western countries long ago razed their own forests and drained many of their swamps. Why shouldn't tropical countries do the same? Moreover, even taking into account deforestation and peat loss, Indonesia's CO2 emissions per head remain below Europe's and are half those of the US.

From the number of mud-spattered Land Cruisers travelling the logging roads of Riau, it is clear that much wealth is being generated. But this is a "wild east" where there are many losers as well as winners.

I saw that on the banks of the Indragiri river on the edge of the Kerumutan peatlands. Here, Kuala Cenaku, a community of 7000 people, has for centuries harvested rattan and honey, cut a few trees and planted rubber trees on what they regard as their lands. Then last year loggers arrived, claimed the land had been given to them by the government, and cut down the forest for 5 kilometres south of the river. Kuala Cenaku's forest is now a wasteland of charred wood on drying peat. In places the Duta Palma group has planted palm oil trees. Yet community head Mursyid Muhammad Ali said his people had scared off the planters and are determined to take the land back. At the jetty, I saw a boatful of new rubber seedlings for restoring the forest. Days later Greenpeace sent in volunteers to block up the drainage canal dug by Duta Palma (left), but it was likely to be a token effort - the intact forest beyond the charred lands is set to become an APRIL concession.

Something remarkable is happening at the pulp giant, however. Wary of the future of its timber supplies and its worsening reputation, the company - unlike rival APP - has begun talking to environment groups.

For several years, APRIL and the environment group WWF have been engaged in an experiment to combine exploitation of forests round the Tesso Nilo national park in central Riau with conservation of the park itself. According to WWF's Michael Stuewe, Tesso Nilo has greater biodiversity than almost any other lowland rainforest worldwide. But it is besieged by migrants looking for land to grow palm oil. The idea is to create a "ring" of acacia plantations round the park that could be policed to protect it.


As I travelled along this ring, though, it was clear that things were not going well. A new road built by APRIL seemed to be attracting migrants. I met three young men squatting at the roadside. They said they had come 18 months before from northern Sumatra. The head of a village along the road, Kusuma, had sold them 6 hectares for about $2600. Now they were planting palm oil.

A bit further on, three more men were living in a small hut, with a similar tale. Such unofficial, often illegal development extends deep into the national park, where an entire village has been built.

As we drove around, my WWF guides were reluctant to stop and talk to locals. Five months before, one of them had been beaten up by a gang. Earlier, two of APRIL's staff were murdered during protests against new rules banning trucks carrying illegal logs from boarding a ferry owned by the company.

With the Tesso Nilo park now almost divided in two by the illegals, some regard it as a lost cause. The new front line in Sumatra is the coastal peatland. Here, too, APRIL has concessions and wants to surround the Kampar bog with a ring of plantations. (to be continued)

part 3


part 1