Indonesia’s forests: Paper trail to destruction

14 August 2011
By Susannah Waters

World records are often a source of pride and admiration, but one specific listing in the Guinness Book of Records, attributed to Indonesia, had a distinctly reprehensible quality. So prolific was the record-breaking exploit that it was inked onto the world-famous book’s pages in both 2008 and 2009.

Indonesia’s achievement? The fastest rate of deforestation worldwide.

In the period from 2000-2009, Indonesia’s forests were being cleared at the staggering speed of around 2 million hectares a year. This represents a land mass roughly equivalent to 300 soccer fields every hour, and a 2% yearly decrease in total forested areas.

Unfortunately, the country’s eco-ravaging accolades do not stop there. This South East Asian nation also smashes records pertaining to native species. Although one of the five most species-rich nations on Earth, it has the highest documented rate of threatened mammal species, and comes third for overall threatened wildlife species.

With such alarming reductions of native flora and fauna annually, Indonesia has reached a critical tipping point. Its wildlife species are at unprecedented risk, and loss of biodiversity is on a dangerous – and seemingly unstoppable – trajectory.

Papering over responsibility

In addition to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation is one of the primary drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. The UN claims that deforestation and forest degradation account for around 20% of all worldwide emissions.

Covering an area of land only second in size to Brazil’s forests, Indonesia’s rainforests are of great global significance. Consequently, the country’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions as a result of logging is substantial.

Indonesian government estimates indicate that forest and peatland depletion there produces around 1.6 billion tons of CO2 per year – a volume which trumps India’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter.

The main threats confronting Indonesia’s forests are fuelled by lucrative commercial operations involving numerous local and international corporations, functioning both inside and outside the bounds of the law.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and its forest products such as wood, pulp and paper are highly prized on international markets.

A company infamous for its activities in the region is Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

APP is a subsidiary of colossal Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas, and has regularly attracted strong scrutiny for its business practices. APP is the leading paper producer in Indonesia, and is one of the largest pulp and paper producers worldwide.

Deemed Indonesia’s “most notorious forest destroyer” by Greenpeace forests campaigner Ian Duff, APP’s hand in forest desecration is acknowledged as a mighty one. The company has been accused of triggering a spectrum of disastrous outcomes for local communities, the environment and wildlife.

The allegations levelled against APP are damning.

It has been denounced for generating extensive pollution, eroding livelihoods by expropriating agricultural and forest areas traditionally relied on by local communities, threatening local food security and skirting legal obligations.

Additionally, some of its timber affiliates are being investigated for illegal logging.

Despite APP’s assurances that it is moving towards more sustainable practices, its track record casts a long shadow of doubt on such claims.

Cheap packaging with a heavy price

The role of Western corporations in the demise of Indonesia’s forests, through their business connections to companies such as APP, is also particularly noteworthy.

Regardless of its unscrupulous conduct, APP is not struggling to whip up business. Just last month, supermarket chain IGA’s Australian operations were discovered to be purchasing toilet paper from APP, which is then sold in-store under IGA’s home brands.

A recent exposé by Greenpeace unearthed APP’s dealings with American company Mattel.

Mattel is a corporation which knows a thing or two about world records. A phenomenal sales performance has Mattel firmly positioned as the largest toy company in the world, while its centrepiece product, Barbie, is the world’s highest-selling doll.

Mattel’s connections to Indonesia’s forest woes were recently thrust under the spotlight via an inventive media campaign by Greenpeace. Playing on a recent Mattel promotion announcing Barbie and Ken’s reunion, timed impeccably for Valentine’s Day, Greenpeace had Ken calling time out on their relationship over Barbie’s recent behaviour.

Greenpeace’s comical video featured an initially upbeat Ken being delivered the shocking news that Barbie was hacking down Indonesian rainforest to “wrap herself in cheaper packaging”.

Greenpeace alleges it has traced Mattel’s cardboard toy packaging back to the rainforests of Indonesia after an exhaustive investigation which employed forensic testing and mapping data. The group also uncovered company certificates verifying Mattel’s link to APP.

The same investigation also revealed Hasbro and Disney’s use of APP’s products.

In a statement, Mattel responded that it had “launched an investigation into the deforestation allegations”. The company declared that it would require its packaging suppliers to “commit to sustainable forestry management practices.”

But Mattel’s words appear to be a mere green sheen, attempting to appease its customer base.

It is unfathomable that corporations such as Mattel and IGA would not be well versed in all dealings along the supply chain. Failing to examine suppliers’ business practices, before contracts have been signed and trade has commenced, would no doubt be considered a quintessential act of evading corporate responsibility.

Palming off accountability

In similar circumstances to Mattel, last year Nestlé was accused by Greenpeace of driving orangutans ever closer to extinction due to the food giant’s extensive use of unsustainably sourced palm oil. A video produced by Greenpeace focused specifically on Nestlé’s Kit Kat chocolate bar.

The footage features a bored employee in the dull surrounds of an open plan office taking a “break” from his mundane task of paper shredding. He opens a plastic Kit Kat wrapper to reveal an orangutan finger, which he then bites into as blood spurts on his computer keyboard and drips down his face.

The scene then cuts to vision of an orangutan and her baby in the sole tree within the desolate wasteland of a former rainforest.

Greenpeace unveiled Nestlé’s use of palm oil from suppliers operating in critical orangutan habitat in Indonesia. One supplier was named as Indonesia’s top palm oil producer, Sinar Mas – a company which has become synonymous with forest destruction on a monumental scale.

Last year, an audit of the company discovered that it had been partaking in widespread illegal land clearing in areas of high conservation value.

Greenpeace’s video played a pivotal role in sparking a widespread social media movement, which led to Nestlé partnering with not-for-profit group The Forest Trust. Nestlé pledged to relinquish ties with “companies owning or managing high risk plantations or farms linked to deforestation”. Whether they will achieve this remains to be seen.

Many prominent corporations still conduct business with Sinar Mas, despite its reputation as a palm oil pariah.

The list includes KFC, Wal-Mart, Hewlett Packard and Tesco. However, Kraft, Burger King and Unilever have all recently ceased trade with the firm.

The palm oil industry amasses US$40 billion globally a year, and Indonesia has captured around a third of this market. The impact of palm oil plantations on orangutan habitat is well known.

The Sumatran Orangutan Society says that on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, there is now “more than 4 times as much land cultivated with oil palms as there is orangutan habitat remaining”. Orangutans are projected to be extinct within 10-20 years if forest protection is not urgently prioritised.

However, the “people of the forest” are not the only species fractured by habitat loss as a consequence of palm oil.

The Asian elephant, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and proboscis monkey have also been gravely affected by the proliferation of plantations. These species are all either endangered, or critically endangered.

There are possibly less than 400 Sumatran tigers remaining in the wild.

Progress or posturing?

In a seemingly momentous victory for the future of Indonesia’s forests, the country’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently announced a two-year moratorium on logging permits for primary forests and peatlands. The suspension was confirmed as part of a $1 billion climate treaty with Norway.

However, the deal has attracted sharp criticism.

It applies merely to new concessions, meaning that companies holding existing permits in primary forests and peatlands can continue to convert that land and even extend their permits. A raft of other major exemptions in the moratorium, plus the exclusion of secondary forests, are also said to undercut its overall potency.

Chris Lang from the REDD-Monitor, which tracks the debate around REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), called the moratorium a “disaster” which possessed “gaping loopholes”. Lou Verchot of the Center for International Forest Research claims the moratorium will have scant effect, as some companies secured massive concession rights before it was enacted, and because monitoring and enforcement in rural areas is weak.

Environmental groups have echoed these concerns.

In an illuminating turn of events, the moratorium’s conditions were breached on its very first day of existence in May. An environmental group reported the burning of peat forest within a moratorium zone in Kalimantan, carried out by a Malaysian rubber and palm oil plantation firm.

Furthermore, the moratorium’s inadequacies are fortified by a pre-existing problem: illegal logging. A 2007 report by the United Nations Environmental Program claims that illegal logging accounted for 73-88% of all timber sourced in Indonesia. Corruption is also endemic among sections of the Indonesian government, and authorities have been caught out illegally issuing plantation licenses for personal gain.

This means that until illegal logging and corruption are stamped out, any embargo on deforestation is doomed to failure.

Action by the Indonesian government has been long overdue, but local people and native species deserve genuine and decisive measures rather than largely ineffectual, tokenistic gestures.

Taking care of business

At a time when environmental and climate concerns should be shaping future decisions, the world’s forests are still being plundered at an astronomical rate. Land the size of Costa Rica is levelled across the globe annually, releasing with it approximately 10 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Vast tracts of Indonesian rainforest are being bulldozed every single day to feed a hunger for an ever-increasing bottom line. Throw-away items are being produced at the expense of unique and threatened species, and to the detriment of the health and livelihoods of countless people.

And despite the tainted reputation of corporations such as APP and Sinar Mas, there is still no shortage of Western firms willing to do business with them.

According to the UN, it is the International Year of Forests – but how would we know it?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s business as usual.

Find out more about the recent Greenpeace campaigns to stop companies sourcing products from APP, which is accused of the widespread destruction of Indonesian forest and threatening wildlife species – Mattel: Barbie It’s Over and IGA: Stop Wiping Out Tigers.

To support action on the unsustainable use of palm oil, and to find out the latest news concerning the palm oil issue, visit the Palm Oil Action Group.

Susannah Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger.


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