Right Balance of Greens

Right Balance of Greens

7 July 2008

published by New Straits Times

Indonesia — Paper is a necessary evil. But one pulp and paper firm challenges this impression by giving back just as much, if not more, to the environment and society. CHAI MEI LING went to visit its paper mill in Kerinchi, Indonesia a sceptic, but came back liking what she saw.

Gliding across the cottony airway of Riau province in an aircraft, one notices that the velvety green stretching well beyond the horizon is actually broken up by differing hues.

There are emerald tracts of forests intermixing with apple-green acacias – just like big pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is the mosaic plantation, unique to fibre company Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) Group. Under this model, land conversion is done selectively. Natural forests with high conservation value – large tracts of unfragmented woods and peatland ecosystem – are left untouched. Degraded forests or scrubland, on the other hand, are turned into estates. It’s a concept that breeds sustainability, says April’s environment manager Eliezer Lorenzo.

The company, whose flagship brand PaperOne is available in more than 30 countries, has been in operation since 1993. It produces, markets and sells pulp and woodfree paper. In this age of heightened environmental consciousness, any tree- cutting business is decidedly taboo, but truth remains that paper is a necessity.

And what if the enterprise manages to strike a delicate balance between business and nature, or even gives back to Mother Nature more than what it takes?

As a whole, April absorbs about 50 tons of carbon dioxide per ha per year, and can be carbon positive by as much as 2.8 tons of carbon for every ton of pulp produced.

The self-sustainable mill also generates its own electricity by recycling pulp by-products. Taking on the role as only a `land resource manager’, it engages the world’s experts in both the business and conservation arenas to work out a model best suited for sustainability.

Despite holding concessions spread out across 850,000ha of land, an area bigger than Selangor, only a third of this landmass has been converted into acacia estates to feed its mill.

Because of the trees’ high growth rates – they mature in 5-7 years – and Sumatra’s ideal climate, April needs less land to produce more trees.

“We practically change carbon dioxide, sunshine and rainfall into practical plantations. Our fibre productivity is 10 times more than those in temperate countries,” says Lorenzo.

Every year, the plantation harvest nine mil tons of wood, out of which two mil tons of pulp and 750,000 tons of paper were produced last year.

No land is left idle for more than a month. And the fast-growing acacias achieve canopy closure within a year, soaking up more carbon in the air than what mature forests absorb.

Riding high on the green agenda, thirty per cent of the concession areas are reserved as green belts. In doing so, some 90 per cent of the land’s biodiversity can be maintained, says an international study. These belts, which cover riparian reserves and protect water quality, also serve as natural firebreaks and travel corridors for wildlife.

The company is also firm in using only farmed trees. It has a legal wood tracking system audited annually by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).

“We’ve had illegal loggers crossing into our area and forcing us to accept their logs. But we are totally opposed to illegal logging.

“No high conservation value forest must be converted into plantation, and no wood coming into our mill must come from these forests. This is our commitment.”

Fire-fighting, land conflicts come every dry season, Riau’s vastly forested province has smouldry spots dotting the landscape. This is the result of the traditional slash-and-burn land clearing method employed by local communities for shifting cultivation. Adding to this are illegal settlers hoping to make a quick buck out of oil palm planting.

Poverty is the main driver, says April’s Brad Sanders.

“These people are impoverished. They don’t have the money to buy equipment to clear land.

“They’re hoping to make a few million Rupiah in the future by planting oil palm. And here, there’s unclear land tenure.

“Claiming is done by exhibiting land use. So they just set a fire and burn.”

As one-fourth of April’s concessions is community enclaves – land claimed by the locals as theirs – and these people do burn, NGO monitoring satellite hotspots data assume that it is April setting up fires.

“This hotspot is burning inside the concession, but outside of our managed land. But we’re not burning. Why would we? We have plantations here!”

Land conflicts are abound in the province, and each claim within April’s concessions takes years to conclude. In compensation, April has set aside land out of its concessions to develop oil palm for the benefit of the local community.

Land clearing by fire meets the locals’ needs if the fire doesn’t get out of control, says Sanders, but because people are burning in the driest periods, they can’t even keep it out of their own plantations.

“It’s an unplanned, uncontrolled, non-sustainable way of land development. It’s too common a tragedy. And this is what that’s causing the haze.”

The haze, quips Lorenzo, is “Riau’s biggest export to Malaysia and Singapore”.

For April, who has adopted a no-burn policy since 1994, these fires pose a real threat to their estates and conservation areas. Prolonged dry seasons like June to September is the time of the year when Sanders and his team of fire fighters go into a frenzied overdrive. They monitor hotspots data, patrol on a chopper, and when called for, fight raging flames.

Helicopters and aircraft carrying gallons of water will be flown in, pumps and hoses deliver water from nearby canals and rivers, and trucks used to replenish supply. April’s annual fire fighting budget is a cool US$1 mil.

Sanders, a former smokejumper in the United States, sets high performance standards for his team.

A smokejumper is a fire fighter who parachutes from a helicopter into forested area on fire armed with hand tools like shovels, chain saws and water pumps to create a firebreak.

The April’s team has to be on site within two hours of a fire detection, contain it in less than two days, and extinguish it before it spreads any bigger than 10ha.

“Nine out of 10 fires put out must be less than 10ha. If not, the guys’ bonus goes down at the end of the year.” Last years, the team achieved a 99 per cent record.

Part of the success is attributed to April’s preventive measures in spreading awareness and providing livelihood options to the locals.

Over 4,000 people from 100 villages have been taught sustainable farming methods under its integrated farming system.

The company also establishes community fibre farms, where the locals lease their land to April for acacia plantation, which means there won’t be any burning.

As support activities, April builds places of worship, roads and schools and provides free medical checkups for the community.

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