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“Ecological Armageddon:” ABC News documentary about APRIL’s operations in Sumatra

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Last week, Australian ABC News’ Foreign Correspondent programme looked into Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd.’s operations on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The programme, titled, “Sumatra – Paper/Tiger“, gives a shocking view of the ongoing destruction of Sumatra’s remaining forests.

APRIL runs one of the world’s biggest pulp and paper mills. On its website, the company claims that its vision is “to be one of the largest, best-managed, most profitable and sustainable pulp and paper companies in the world”. But ABC News reporter Matt Brown found a different story.

Watch the ABC News documentary by clicking on the image below:

A transcript of the programme is available on ABC News’ website.

The programme features an interview with Bill Laurance, a forest scientist with James Cook University in Australia. He is extremely critical of APRIL’s operations:

“Some of the worst forest destruction I’ve ever seen anywhere. Some of the fastest and most intense forest loss is happening there.”
“I thought I’d seen you know impressive deforestation in places like the eastern and southern Amazon and parts of Africa and other places, but what’s happening there on just sort of a large industrial scale is pretty daunting.”
“Ideally what you want to be doing is focusing on areas that have already been cleared, but when you’re going in and just mowing down vast expanses of forest and as I understand it, it’s something in the order of about seventy thousand hectares this year, so imagine clearing a hundred and forty thousand footy fields of tropical rainforest just in one year to feed this giant pulp plant. I mean that’s really alarming. That’s just, it’s almost you know an ecological Armageddon.”
“Mowing down vast expanses of primary forest and converting it into monocultures of exotic trees which are grown to be four, five years old and then cut down, like you cut the grass and turn into paper pulp, this is not something I define as environmentally sustainable. It’s something different altogether.”

While the programme does not mention REDD, ABC News’ Matt Brown visits the Kampar peninsular, where APRIL has a proposed REDD project. APRIL did not carry out a process of free, prior and informed consent with indigenous communities living on the Kampar Peninsular before starting work on establishing the project. In addition, the company’s logging and plantation operations are having serious impacts for local communities.

As Lafcadio Cortesi of Rainforest Action Network points out in the documentary, there is no guarantee that even the area of forest that APRIL proposes to leave standing will successfully preserve the carbon stored in the peat below the forest:

“The bottom line is that they’re going to be lowering the water levels and how that impacts the whole dome, the whole ecosystem is really anyone’s guess.”

ABC News visited Pulau Padang, an island in the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, where APRIL is currently expanding its destructive operations. ABC News interviewed a local resident whose family has farmed sago on the island for six generations. He is clearly upset at the thought of losing his land to APRIL’s plantations:

“I feel very upset and very sad and I can’t imagine what will happen to my family. I can’t imagine… I would be able… to continue educating my kids because the only thing that I have – my only hope – is my land.”

But APRIL is already moving in Pulau Padang. Violence has broken out in response. On 13 July 2011, one of the contractors clearing the land for APRIL was stabbed and burned to death. A group of NGOs put out a statement pointing out that there are several overlapping land claims on the island and demanding that APRIL “stops all their operation on the field and withdraws each heavy equipment until the common agreement stated and can be accepted by all parties.”

Bill Laurance gets the last word in ABC News’ documentary:

“When I came back from Sumatra, I almost felt like I had a little bit of post traumatic stress. I mean I just felt at some gut level really disturbed. It’s just the sense that there’s an environmental travesty ongoing here and it’s just alarming to sit here and watch it happening right before your eyes.”

This, then, is the reality of forest destruction in Indonesia – despite the moratorium that president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed into force in May 2011. APRIL’s Director of Operations, David Kerr, even notes in the film that the company has the backing of the Indonesian government:

“We’re doing it in a responsible way in line with what the Indonesian government wants to promote as part of developing forestry and if we don’t do it the way we’re doing it, it can be even worse.”

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  1. I know that GetUp in Australia would not normally become involved in issues which arw not domestic, but they made an exzception for live cattle exports to Indonesia and they could well feel moved to instigate a boycott of paper products coming out of April factories in Sumatera and elsewhere. It is worth a try! Give them a call.

  2. It was incredibly upsetting to watch, I sympathised with the closing words of Bill Laurance and appreciate his viewpoint.

    The words that were pouring out of David Marr’s mouth (the APRIL representative in the documentary) about sustainability within their activities and operations as well as their ‘forest management’ being a sustainable solution to the problem of illegal logging was the biggest lie of all… illegal loggers cannot impact on the landscape anywhere near as fast or on a similar scale to that of which APRIL is destructing the rainforest – and to top it off their paper packaging displays the logo ‘sourced from plantation timber’…

    What can be done to stop this and other decimation of the remaining rainforests in Indonesia…?

  3. How about an all-out global boycott of APRIL and companies like them?

    The purpose of the boycott would be to drive the companies into the ground, NOT to drive them into the arms of some dodgy certification scheme like FSC or even dodgier protection racket like WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network.

  4. Would a campaign which focuses on a particular product (such as [branded] copier paper based [unnecessarily] on virgin fibre) supplied by a particular group from particular countries create a domino effect? Two groups which market globally seem particularly ripe fruit (as distinct from low hanging) in this context.

    Legislation is already in place in the USA and the EU.

    Despite this, during 2010, the USA imported roughly 100,000 tonnes of “printing and writing paper” from Indonesia and a further 40,000 tonnes or so from China. At least some of this would have been based on waste paper. However, it would probably be quick and inexpensive to identify – by tree species – whether the paper derives at least partly from trees grown in Indonesia and supplied to the mills of two groups (three if one includes Kertas Nusantara).

    During 2010, France, Italy and the Netherlands imported almost all the roughly 100,000 tonnes of pulp which the EU imported from Indonesia. Belgium, Italy and the UK imported more than half the roughly 200,000 tonnes of paper which the EU imported from Indonesia.

    The tactics of a campaign should of course include an interest in nodes in the supply chain – the number of ports through which the products are imported is small relative to the number of outlets which supply end-users – but only if the products involved are likely to be illegal.

    Given the quantities involved, it might be quite easy for customs departments in the USA and these EU Member States to identify relevant shipments – and take action under the Lacey Act or (from 03 March 2013) EU Regulation 995/2010. As part of the campaign, they should of course be formally reminded of the nature of those supplies. Customs Officers would not want to be accused of complicity or negligence.

    After 03 March 2013, if Indonesia’s exports of pulp and paper to the EU are FLEGT-licensed (as seems to be proposed under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement currently being negotiated), EU Member State governments (and their courts) must accept that trade as legal. This would give a propaganda boost to groups which might be the subject of the campaign.

  5. What has been done by the APRIL company in Sumatra is an example of how bad the global paper industry. On behalf of the needs of world paper production, they are destroying forests and habitats as well as depriving the rights of the people around the forest. Australian Government as the company’s home and Indonesia should be firmly stated that what was done by APRIL in the forests of Sumatra is the biggest challenge in the global effort to combat climate change

  6. From Indonesian perspective. don’t just give the picture of problem to us but give a solution instead.
    agricultural/forestry in Indonesia has absorb huge amount of employee not only direct hire for the company but also indirect which support the economy. with the ratio of direct and indirect is 1 : 9.
    seeing the magnitude of agricultural development particularly in Sumatera and Kalimantan i have to tell you that big companies is more environmentally and socially responsible compare to small company and even compare with the government own company.
    off course Indonesia is need a support form wealth country who has chop down the forest earlier such as Europe, US and Australia in developing the system, management tool of agricultural sector so it good for the business, good for the people and off course good for the planet.

    So if you still use paper for writing, tissue for your toilet, soap for your bath time and off course vegetable or any agricultural crop for your meal, again i think we should try to get a solution on this instead of become part of the problem.

  7. @Taufan Chrisna,
    There is much conflict between migrants (who take the jobs) and local people (who loose their livelihoods) as a consequence of forest conversion. The crops which Indonesia is growing on that land – pulpwood and palm oil – are luxuries, as are the other primary drivers of greenhouse gas emissions cattle and soy for feedstock in the Amazon.

    Revealingly, the current edition of World Growth’s “Green Development Oil Newsletter” quotes a statement by the vice-chairman of the Malaysia Palm Oil Association “the premium on certified sustainable palm oil was now so low that producers could not cover their production costs”. In other words, palm oil is commercially unsustainable unless the poor and habitats subsidise it.

  8. We appreciate for the concern of you from wealth countries’ perspective point of view.
    But had you ever do something to make our people live better?
    Or it might be all of you only wanna take advantages from our country to absorb the CO2 which mostly caused by the wealth countries. Our people who live in the villages also have the right to have better live.
    Most people said that the illegal logging only make small damages not huge scale like a company or corporate did, but maybe we forget one thing the most essence for forest area. Do the illegal logging planting the forest after they cut down the trees? If you live in Indonesia you will now mostly the illegal logging get support fund from “rich men” which call “cukong kayu”. Even the illegal logging also use heavy equipment to cut the trees.
    Don’t only blamed but propose a better solution for our people who live in the villages especially nearby the forest. Also don’t be too naive only wanna boycott the legal forest products because we still cut the trees. But a lots of furniture from forest wood still in your living room.