Indonesia minister urges April to meet tougher peatland rules

Plantations on deep peat cannot replant after the next harvest. Instead, they must work with the ministry to negotiate land swops to replant on non-peatlands. PHOTO: ST FILE

JAKARTA - Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister on Monday (Oct 23) urged Singapore-based pulpwood company April to meet stricter rules aimed at protecting fragile, flammable peatlands, a major source of choking annual haze.

April, or Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, is Indonesia's second-largest pulp and paper company. April manages a plantation area of 480,000ha of fast-growing pulpwood trees, such as Acacia. More than half this area is planted on peatlands, which the Indonesian government has been stepping up efforts to protect to prevent fires.

The ministry last week rejected a revised 10-year work plan for April's operating arm PT RAPP covering a concession area of 400,000ha in Riau, Sumatra, saying it did not meet tougher peatland protection laws.

Plantation firms must submit a work plan that outlines their operations on their concessions, and the ministry must approve these or suggest revisions. Failure to approve means shutting down operations on affected concessions.

PT RAPP said last week it needed more time to comply with the laws, particularly in discussing land swaps with the government to shift plantations to non-peatlands. It also felt that a rushed departure off peatlands could leave them vulnerable to encroachment by others.

The decision would also mean job losses, with 4,600 PT RAPP forestry employees progressively placed on home leave from Oct 20. Thousands of other workers also faced an uncertain future, it said in a statement.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya told The Straits Times on Monday that PT RAPP breached a deadline where they needed to adjust their work plan to the existing regulation, and opted to follow their own version of the law.

"I invite RAPP to be a compliant company, that follows the regulations in this country like all the other HTI plantation companies whose business work plan had no problem and have been approved," she said, referring to pulpwood companies.

The minister said the compliance of HTI companies that operate on peatland was crucial because cleared and drained peatlands have been a major source of fires for more than 20 years.

At the heart of the dispute is a decree issued in February this year. The law, aimed at encouraging plantation firms to shift off deep peatlands, says that companies with plantations on deep peat cannot replant on their concession lands after the next harvest. Instead, they must work with the ministry to negotiate land swaps to replant on non-peatlands.

The expedited process of shifting plantation firms off deep peat has unsettled some companies because of uncertainty over the availability of new land and the disruption to the 5- to 7-year harvest cycles of pulpwood plantations.

In a statement to The Straits Times on Monday, April said at no time had the company violated any of the country's laws, challenging a story published by The Jakarta Post last Friday that accused the company of peatland violations.

A spokesman for April told The Straits Times that PT RAPP immediately complied with the cancellation of the long-term work plan, "suspending nursery, harvesting, planting and transportation activities on its concession area".

The ministry deemed that PT RAPP did not meet the current ministerial decree on peatland forests.

"Complying with this regulation requires PT RAPP to immediately designate a significant part of its current plantations into protection (peatland ecosystem function) areas, resulting in the loss of more than 50 per cent of its fiber supply."

The spokesman said that over a period of months, PT RAPP has proposed a gradual transition linked to the ministry's offer of a land swap that is clean and clear. "By this we mean areas that are environmentally and technologically suited for forestry operations and free of any potential risk of community conflict or competing claims."

The ministry said it hoped to meet PT RAPP on Tuesday (Oct 24) to discuss the dispute.

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