ABC News” Foreign Correspondent programme investigated into the operations in Sumatra, Indonesia by the paper giant Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., better known by the more disarming acronym APRIL. The programme, titled,Sumatra’s Paper/Tiger, gives a shocking view of the ongoing destruction of Sumatra’s remaining forests. APRIL has embarked on a massive land clearing project, removing natural stands of timber and replanting fast-growing acacia trees and when it’s done it says the plantation timber alone will feed the plant.
APRIL describes this program as sustainable and certainly preferable to the ad hoc land clearing and burning which blights so much of the Indonesia archipelago. 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: the rate and scale of forest clearing in Sumatra by big paper producers approaches ecological Armageddon.
ABC Foreign Correspondent focuses on the activities of APRIL in Riau province where its gargantuan development has led to a bustling town of 250,000 people, many working for and benefitting from APRIL’s plantation and factory. It produces office paper sold by some of Australia’s largest retailers.
But the research team explores beyond what APRIL proffers as a model development, to investigate claims of corruption in a nearby area where logging companies appear to have bribed their way into operation. An APRIL subsidiary has been implicated in a paper trail leading to a powerful local political figure now in jail for accepting bribes in return for production permits.
ABC crew investigates the implications of major plantation and milling development on Sumatra’s sensitive and carbon-loaded peat beds. As the bulldozers move through the peat beds, peat dries in the sun and enormous clouds of greenhouse gas are expelled into the atmosphere.
Environmentalists and many villagers worry about the dramatic changes reshaping the land and also about the plight of residents who’ve been there a lot longer than most – like the Sumatran tiger.
A transcript of the programme is below, from theÂ ABC Newsâ€™ website.
BROWN: High in the hills of Riau Province the haunting call of the native gibbon heralds each new day. The forest canopy conceals some of the worldâ€™s rarest wildlife, including the endangered Sumatran tiger. Karmila Parakkasia and her team from the World Wildlife Fund track tigers searching for paw prints on the forest floor. The magnificent predators have long been regarded with awe.
KARMILA PARAKKASI: [Tiger researcher, WWF] â€œLocal people believe that tigers are their elders, the most respected ones. It’s kind of like their guard, you know to say that, â€˜Hey you’re doing something bad so I’m coming down here, I warn you”
BROWN: The team places cameras in strategic parts of the forest and sets them to automatically film passing tigers. When they get lucky, it’s a sight to behold.
KARMILA PARAKKASI: “It’s a thrill for us. It’s just an amazing feeling to see these cubs, healthy cubs, playingâ€.
BROWN: The Sumatran tiger has roamed here, isolated from the rest of the world, for at least six thousand years. But their territory is under relentless assault and now less than four hundred tigers survive. Around sixty per cent of Riau’s forests have already been cleared to make way for vast palm oil and pulp and paper plantations.
The tiger team’s videos say it all “a male tiger sniffs the camera, a week later bulldozers move in. The next day, another tiger wanders through the flattened land.
KARMILA PARAKKASI: “I feel really sorry for the tigers because definitely it’s a really bad sign for their future. There will be more forest destroyed”.
BROWN: As the forest is cleared and replaced with plantations, the tigers are running out of room and without the natural protection of the jungle, they can more easily fall foul of poachers. Just last month this tiger was found in a plantation snared by a trap. After several days in agony, wildlife officials were called in. They shot him with tranquillisers, then he died.
KARMILA PARAKKASI: “It breaks my heart because they have a right to live here and theyâ€™re even here before us. Somehow people just keep you know taking so much from them, first they’re taking their home, they’re taking down the forests…..”.
BROWN: Tracking tigers is a dream job for this recent university graduate, but Karmila wonders how long it may last. And with one of the world’s biggest pulp and paper companies based here, pressure is growing. Asia Pacific Resources International Limited or APRIL is logging forest and planting acacia trees in Riau’s prime tiger territory.
KARMILA PARAKKASI: “The APRIL concessions are located in different parts of the landscape and one of them is here right at the border with the Wildlife Reserve”.
BROWN: The plantations look green enough but conservationists say they’re a biological desert.Â
KARMILA PARAKKASI: “Before the plantation exists it was a forest and if I were a tiger, I would feel sad, angry, confused and I don’t know to whom I should talk to, to get back my home”.
BILL LAURANCE: “Some of the worst forest destruction I’ve ever seen anywhere. Some of the fastest and most intense forest loss is happening thereâ€.
BROWN: Now home in North Queensland, one of Australia’s most experienced forest scientists, Bill Laurance, toured Riau with APRIL earlier this year. He’s still shaken by what he saw.
BILL LAURANCE: [Conservation biologist] “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”.
BROWN: As APRIL’s machines move in, they level all before them. While the company waits for its plantations to grow, the native forest provides valuable wood for its mill.
DAVID KERR: [Director of Operations, APRIL] “Our goal is to finish conversion as soon as we can and be a hundred per cent plantation fibreâ€.
BILL LAURANCE: “Ideally what you want to be doing is focusing on areas that have already been cleared, but when youâ€™re going in and just mowing down vast expanses of forest and as I understand it, itâ€™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”.
BROWN: APRIL’s mill churns out more than three and a half million tons of pulp and paper each year. This sprawling factory is an elaborate one-stop shop. High-grade copy paper whips along at a hundred kilometres an hour. These blocks of A4 will be familiar to many Australians. They’re on the shelves of one of our biggest office suppliers, Officeworks. Fuji Xerox sells them as well. They’ve even got a green label lauding the use of plantation wood.
BILL LAURANCE: “I think they’re greenwashing. They’re just basically trying to convince us they’re doing the right thing by the environment but in fact often at times what they’re doing is pretty paltry”.
BROWN: The view from the company’s helicopter reveals an operation of staggering size. Our tour guide is APRIL’s Director of Operations, David Kerr.
DAVID KERR: …So this is the biggest mill on the planet.
BROWN: “The biggest?”
DAVID KERR: “Yep”
BROWN: The mill is fed by a patchwork of plantations where native forest once stood. Little is left beyond the slender fingers of forest on rivers and streams. APRIL says its land management stands in stark contrast to the illegal logging and burning that scars neighbouring property.
DAVID KERR: “What we’re doing is we’re doing it in a responsible way, in line with what the Indonesian Government wants. If we don’t do it the way that we’re doing it, it can be even worse”.
BROWN: “Why do you leave these single tall trees around the place?”
DAVID KERR: “It’s a requirement, a legal requirement to keep some in special species if we can, if we come across them when we’re harvesting”.
BROWN: “They look pretty lonely”.
DAVID KERR: “Yeah they do”.
DAVID LAURANCE: “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. Itâ€™s something different altogether”.
BROWN: Nearby APRILâ€™s mill at Kerinci the sentiment is more positive. The villagers the company introduced us too say their lives have changed for the better.
SUNGEP: â€œIâ€™m very happy, because the roads are neat, sport and education facilities are also supported by the company, and all these things are helpful for us to move forward. So weâ€™re happy with the presence of the company that came here and cares about the community. We respect each otherâ€.
BROWN: While APRIL holds out its presence in Kerinci as something of a model operation, just an hour away we find a different story. This is the Kampar Peninsula where itâ€™s not just the clearing and tree felling which blights the landscape. Corruption runs as deep and murky as the Kampar River itself.Â
Many of the companies here found a local governor only too willing to accommodate their operations for the right price and if it wasnâ€™t for a diligent local police chief named Pak Sutjiptadi a catalogue of bribes and dodgy permit deals would never have been exposed.
ZULFAHMI: [Environmentalist] â€œPak Sutjiptadi at that time was unbelievableâ€¦ very amazing. He didnâ€™t care about the controversy or pressures from everyone. Many Riau political figures and community leaders were condemning him at the time but he didnâ€™t careâ€.
BROWN: Sutjiptadi stunned locals like environmental activist Zulfahmi, who were used to having their concerns swept aside by powerful officials. He investigated both the big companies and their smaller suppliers.
PAK SUTJIPTADI: â€œBehind me is massive forest destruction which occurred as a result of wrongly obtained permitsâ€.Â
BROWN: The local governor was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for forestry concessions. Heâ€™d even cashed a cheque for a quarter of a million dollars written by APRILâ€™s Indonesian subsidiary.
DAVID KERR: â€œIâ€™m not aware of that incident, but I will say that we run this company with the highest standards of corporate governance and we donâ€™t stand for any of our employees being involved in any illegal activitiesâ€.
BROWN: APRIL says the cheque was made out to one of its suppliers to pay for a shipment of wood and the company did not authorise it to be used in any other way, but the exact role of APRILâ€™s subsidiary and the other companies was never properly examined. The police chief was suddenly transferred and his successor shut down the investigation citing a lack of evidence.
ZULFAHMI: â€œIt was like destroying our hopes. We were disappointed, sad, furious all mixed. Not only me, but a lot of Riau peopleâ€.Â
BROWN: When a Presidential task force looked into the scandal in March this year, it was concerned enough to urge the police to re-examine the companies involved. While the government officials have been gaoled, the companies have still got their plantations just behind this tree line and their seeds of corruption will probably still grow into healthy profits.Â
Community leader, Jasri Nando, grew up on the Kampar River and watched as the once familiar landscape was turned into this.Â
JASRI NANDO: â€œIn the beginning, everybody was against it. But after the company perhaps offered a gain everyone with power embraced the company one by oneâ€.Â
BROWN: Nando is taking us to one of the striking remnants of the original forest.Â
JASRI NANDO: â€œWe were born here, and we donâ€™t want to lose the natureâ€.Â
BROWN: Itâ€™s a beautiful monument to whatâ€™s been lost.
JASRI NANDO: â€œIâ€™m angry. But nobody cares that Iâ€™m angry. Who will listen?â€
BROWN: This tree marks another extraordinary feature of the Kampar Peninsula â€“ its roots burrow down into deep wet carbon-rich peat. Lafcadio Cortesi from the Rainforest Action Network warns logging on the peat risks a greenhouse gas disaster.
LAFCADIO CORTESI: [Rainforest Action Network] â€œTheyâ€™re these huge banks or reservoirs of carbon that has been accumulating over, certainly thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of yearsâ€.
BROWN: APRILâ€™s plantations canâ€™t thrive in the damp peat so the company digs canals to drain off the water and when the peat dries, it releases great clouds of greenhouse gas.
LAFCADIO CORTESI: â€œWeâ€™re seeing hundreds of thousands of hectares of deep peat being converted to plantations. Indonesia is the worldâ€™s third largest greenhouse gas emitter and that is coming not from smoke stacks, itâ€™s coming from the conversion of these forests and these peat lands which are emitting massive amounts of carbon. So thereâ€™s a lot at stakeâ€.
BROWN: APRIL is only preserving the most sensitive site, at the centre of the Peninsular. The area is known as the â€œpeat domeâ€ where the peat is the deepest.
DAVID KERR: â€œIn English it stands for Orchid Lake and itâ€™s high value conservation area that weâ€™ve actually expanded around it because itâ€™s a special place for us â€“ lots of biodiversity, buffered by our acacia plantations and thriving naturally in the bushâ€.
BROWN: APRIL says itâ€™s protecting this delicate eco system by building new dams on its canals to stop the peat from draining too fast.
DAVID KERR: â€œOverall itâ€™s the real world solution in terms of keeping the high conservation value areas intact and establishing sustainability for our company.
LAFCADIO CORTESI: â€œThe bottom line is that theyâ€™re going to be lowering the water levels and how that impacts the whole dome, the whole ecosystem is really anyoneâ€™s guessâ€.
BROWN: As its appetite for fresh forests and new plantations grows, APRIL is spreading its operations out into the Malacca Strait between Sumatra and Singapore. Weâ€™re on our way to the small peat topped island of Pulau Padang. The mountains of logs on barges are an omen of the islandâ€™s fate.Â
Palau Padang has a small but thriving economy with locals making a living out of rubber and sago. Sago factories hug the coastline and sell the extracted starch to the mainland.Â
PAIRAN: â€œI have this dream – for the next generation â€“ for my kids especiallyâ€.
BROWN: Pairanâ€™s family has lived and farmed sago on the island for six generations.
PAIRAN: â€œI donâ€™t want my family to have a mediocre life. My goal is to become advanced so that my familyâ€™s needs can be metâ€.Â
BROWN: Pairan says his hopes and ambitions are under threat because his sago farm is in APRILâ€™s new concession. Although he has longstanding deeds granted by the local government, that doesnâ€™t matter. Heâ€™s been told the companyâ€™s concession trumps the lot.
PAIRAN: â€œI feel very upset and very sad and I canâ€™t imagine what will happen to my family. (Upset) I canâ€™t imagineâ€¦I would be ableâ€¦to continue educating my kids because the only thing that I have â€“ my only hope â€“ is my landâ€.
BROWN: APRIL is already chopping its way inland. On the islandâ€™s most remote coast itâ€™s carving a swathe through the forest preparing for more roads and canals. It is little wonder security is tight. Tensions here are mounting.Â
Twelve of the fourteen village heads here have agreed to APRILâ€™s plans but hundreds have turned out today to peacefully rally against their governorâ€™s decision to grant APRIL more than a third of the island.Â
PAIRAN: â€œIâ€™m the sixth generation of my family who was born on this island. I will not let anyone take away my rights. I will defend my farm with my life. Whatever happens, I will stand in the middle of my farm. I will defend it if the company tries to take away my rightsâ€.Â
BROWN: Theyâ€™re gathering at their local mosque to pray for their future.
MAN AT MOSQUE: â€œAsk the God Almighty that we are always given strengthâ€¦so that we are always united â€“ to fight what weâ€™ve been fighting all along against the presence of the company on this islandâ€.Â
BROWN: According to APRIL the people of Pulau Padang have nothing to fear and instead, itâ€™s offering them a bright future.
DAVID KERR: â€œThe solution for those people may be that they still can get to their land. The solution for other people in that area may be that they can end up working for usâ€.
BROWN: Despite those assurances the conflict turned violent. Two days after we left Pulau Padang contractors clearing the land for APRIL were attacked at night. Their machines were bombed and one man was stabbed and burned to death. With growing concerns about community conflicts and the logging of natural forests, last year the internationally recognised organisation for good forest management, the Forest Stewardship Council, suspended APRILâ€™s accreditation.
PAIRAN: â€œI suggest to all people in this world, please donâ€™t use paper wastefully. And I hope all people in this world work to save the Earth, save the forests, and small islands such as our Padang Islandâ€.Â
BROWN: While Australia debates its carbon future, Australians are buying ream after ream of paper made in the greenhouse gas capital of Indonesia. And the Sumatran forests, people and tigers are paying the price.Â
BILL LAURANCE: â€œWhen 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. Itâ€™s just the sense that thereâ€™s an environmental travesty ongoing here and itâ€™s just alarming to sit here and watch it happening right before your eyesâ€.