Indonesia — Those residing in the Southeast Asian region would recall the haze episodes in the early 1990s that reduced visibility to dangerous levels and threatened the respiratory health of millions of people.
Since then the governments of the region, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, have been on the lookout for ‘hotspots’ caused by forest fires or peat fires.
Indiscriminate burning, clearing of vast forest by burning and in some cases fires that happen naturally, released smoke and pollutants into the air, causing thick haze to build up.
In 2002, Indonesia, blamed for most of the haze episodes that shrouded the region, committed itself in banning open burning especially in forested areas.
NO EASY TASK FOR INDONESIA
Clearly, it was an uphill task for Indonesia in stopping the rampant burning of forest by farmers who practised shifting cultivation, illegal settlers and plantation companies that take the easy way out when clearing the land by burning the forest.
Even at present, the situation is not any better as the local population is succumbing to the tremendous demand for more land to cultivate oil palm, a lucrative commodity that fetches high price in the world market.
Indonesia is currently the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and it is opening up millions of hectares for oil palm cultivation.
Some groups claim that the opening up of new oil palm plantations are just a guise to extract logs from the forest, which has been fetching good prices as well.
APRIL SHOWS THE WAY
While the Indonesian authorities are grappling with the unending situation, one foreign-owned pulp and paper manufacturing company in the Riau Province in Sumatra has shown the way in tackling the issue.
The company called APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited), while relying on the local supply of wood for its pulp and paper mills, had come up with a ‘win-win’ strategy to tackle the twin environmental problems of ‘hotspots’ and illegal logging.
APRIL’s Sustainability Director Neil Franklin said the company had transformed the lives of the local farmers into economically self-reliant communities.
Villagers were offered many sustainable sources of income as an alternative to illegal logging such as freshwater fish farming, livestock breeding, food processing, horticulture, and small and medium-scale enterprises.
He said the farmers were encouraged to let their land be managed by the company on a sustainable basis, thus getting them away from the old practice of shifting cultivation.
In place, the local farmers were given jobs as planters on their own land which were turned into forest plantation and work at fibre plant nurseries set up by APRIL.
Franklin said the company has been providing funds and managing their land on a profit sharing basis and this strategy has been very successful, with the local community responding well to the idea.
APRIL’s Fire, Health and Safety Manager Brad Sanders said the company would help clear up their land mechanically instead of burning and provide seedlings for them to grow new trees on their land.
STRATEGY TO PREVENT ILLEGAL LOGGING
And to prevent illegal logging, the company avoids buying logs from unknown sources and also deploys a comprehensive wood tracking system that verify the timber harvested consistent with forestry rules and environmental requirements.
APRIL, which ventured into Riau in 1993, was first given a land concession of nearly a million hectares. Of these, 270,000 hectares have been converted into fibre plantations, 240 hectares kept as conservation areas, 215 hectares developed into community enclaves and infrastructure support, and the remaining planted with more fibre trees.
APRIL’s Forestry R & D Director, G. D. Golani said the company has targeted to plant 160 million Acacia plants, a pulpwood species that matures in six years, on 107,000 hectares.
APRIL has three main nurseries at Pelalawan, Baserah and Kerinci, all in Riau, to grow the Acacia seedlings.
APRIL has become a leading economic force and major employer in Riau with about 250,000 people depending on its pulp and paper operations for livelihood.
The company has managed to convert the economy of the Riau rural communities from unsustainable subsistence living to a sustainable developing society.
APRIL hopes that while reaping the economic benefits from its sustainable activities in the Riau Province, it will also help the Indonesian government to preserve parts of Sumatra’s natural environment and extinguish the ‘hotspots’ that have been besieging the country.