Firms to be tested on fire readiness

Jakarta to assess pulp and paper companies as part of land-swop move to curb the haze

Indonesia's government will apply strict environmental and fire readiness testing to pulp and paper firms before they will be granted new concessions under a land swop scheme that aims to get the companies off carbon-rich deep peatlands, a senior official said yesterday.

The controversial scheme is part of efforts to curb fires and the haze as well as cut carbon emissions blamed for driving climate change.

Last year, Jakarta passed a regulation under which pulp and paper company concessions on deep peatland must be allocated non-peatlands as compensation. Under the scheme, the firms, such as Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited, must halt replanting on deep peatland concessions once the current rotation is harvested. These are swopped for non-peatland elsewhere.

Dried-out peatlands are prone to fire and were a major source of the choking, toxic haze that enveloped the region in 2015. Jakarta has a wider programme to protect peatlands to cut fire risk and emissions, and the initial aim is to restore 2.1 million ha of deep peatlands, mostly in company concessions.

Mr Hilman Nugroho, a director-general at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said any swops will have conditions attached. "Let's see how this year. Is there fire on their land? If there is still fire, we will hold," he told reporters, saying companies must be equipped with adequate fire-fighting personnel and equipment and possess good environmental management.

Field teams were checking if such equipment had been deployed by the firms, he said. "If they have all that, it means they are in good faith. And we will see this year whether they 'play' (are involved in slash-and-burn) or not... whether the water level (in the peatland) rose, canals are blocked properly."

He was responding to a statement by a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups, which yesterday urged the government to reveal more details about the land swop scheme.

The determination of the areas for the land swop has been carried out without transparency or public input, according to the coalition, which includes WWF Indonesia, Auriga and Wetlands International.

It said: "We fear that vast areas of natural forest, especially in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Papua, will be designated for land swops and converted into pulpwood plantations in the name of peatland restoration."

Mr Hilman dismissed these worries, saying non-productive forest concessions will be reallocated to qualified pulpwood firms. He also said officials will prepare and make public maps of land swop locations.

The coalition also appealed to the government to hold public auctions for firms to select concessions. Mr Hilman said: "We will find the (land) allocations first. The amount of land swop will follow the amount of those restored and remedied."

The ministry last year said about 920,000 ha of non-productive forestry areas and areas requested by plantation firms but not yet given permits might be suitable.

Pulp and paper companies have expressed concerns over the land swop scheme, saying there is little clarity on where the land is, that it is likely to be far from their mills, and that they will have to protect the deep peatland concessions from encroachment, fires and illegal logging for the life of the concessions. Some concession areas have leases of 60 and even 99 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2018, with the headline 'Firms to be tested on fire readiness'. Print Edition | Subscribe