FEATURE - Indonesia's loggers scrutinised ahead of climate summit

TELUK MERANTI, Indonesia Thu Nov 26, 2009 6:41am IST

Greenpeace activists carry sacks of sand for damming a peatland river near Teluk Meranti village, in Pelalawan, Indonesia's Riau province November 10, 2009. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Greenpeace activists carry sacks of sand for damming a peatland river near Teluk Meranti village, in Pelalawan, Indonesia's Riau province November 10, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Beawiharta

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TELUK MERANTI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Logging in Indonesia can be a murky business involving navigating government bureaucracy to get permits and land concessions in one of the world's most corrupt countries, to winning the hearts and minds of villagers living near the rainforests.

As the issue of deforestation gets set to take centre-stage at a global climate change conference in Copenhagen next month, the rapid decline of Indonesia's rainforests has come into the spotlight following heated protests by Greenpeace at the site of a carbon-rich rainforest in Sumatra that is slated for logging.

Indonesia's government has pledged to slow down deforestation, but the process of granting concessions is far from transparent in a country where bribe-taking by officials is common and local governments actively seek investment by logging firms, as well as palm oil plantations on cleared forests.

"There's a long legacy of concerns about the integrity of decision-making in the zoning process and the concession-granting process," said Frances Seymour, director general of the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research.

Home to about 10 percent of the world's rainforests, deforestation in Indonesia occurred at an average rate of 1.08 million hectares a year between 2000 and 2005, according to the Ministry of Forestry. A 2007 World Bank report found Indonesia to be the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the United States and China, largely due to massive fires to clear peatland forests. The government rejected the report.

Aside from the risk of corruption tainting the permit granting process, conservationists say that a lack of a coherent government policy on logging rights has led to the granting of concessions in some of the country's most fragile forests.

The Forestry Ministry last week temporarily suspended operations by Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) in Kampar Peninsula, a stretch of rainforest with a rich and rare flora and fauna, including the endangered Sumatran tiger.

The ministry issued the three-month permit review to "see whether it was appropriate to grant this permit", according to Wandojo Siswanto, a senior adviser to the Forestry Minister.

"We in the Ministry of Forestry have a programme to examine permits being given on peatland areas to determine optimal management of these areas," he said.

Given that APRIL's logging camps were set up months ago, some conservationists wonder why this process was not done before APRIL was awarded the 56,000 hectare government peatland concession. Peatlands are 50 to 60 percent carbon and when they are exposed from logging or dredging, they release massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The permit review followed a high profile campaign by Greenpeace activists who camped outside APRIL's concession in dengue-infested rainforest. Protestors chained themselves to APRIL's bulldozers, leading to the arrest and deportation of several activists and foreign journalists.

The process in which logging permits are granted in Indonesia is far from transparent. To obtain a permit, a company must have its application documents, including recommendations from local government officials and environmental reports, processed by the Ministry of Forestry.

"Corruption can happen at any stage of the process. You can pay for any report or letter you need and there often is falsification of documents," said Bambang Setiono, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Economic Institute and one Indonesia's foremost experts on money laundering in the forestry sector.

"It would be very easy for the Minister or the department to check that the documents match conditions on the ground but often they do not."

Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission has launched several probes relating to the Forestry Ministry which processes permit applications, but, so far, no major heads have rolled.

STAKEHOLDERS

After the permits are obtained, the logging companies all too frequently turn their sights on winning the hearts and minds of villagers living near their concession, offering them gifts and assistance for their support.

"I don't think these activities are just for the sake of the local people. If they don't do this, the local people will not cooperate. They are buying the support of the local people," said Setiono.

Often the logging companies bring services and infrastructure to sorely neglected villages such as Teluk Meranti, an 800-family fishing hamlet on the fringe of APRIL's Kampar concession, which suffers daily power cuts and has just a mudslick of a main road.

"Really, the government should be fixing our road and mosque, not APRIL," said Hendrizal, a 23-year-old unemployed villager. "Of course APRIL wants something from us! That's why they are helping us. But if they don't help us, who will?"

He was among thousands of locals who were courted by APRIL after it received its Riau concession.

The company sent social workers to Hendrizal's village to woo the locals with promises of jobs, scholarships, free circumcisions for boys in keeping with Islamic law, and a renovation of the local mosque -- all in exchange for co-operation and permission to log their forest.

"If a paper company wants to give us money and compensation, they can take our forest, as far as I am concerned. Global warming is not our business. The most important thing for us is having enough to get by," said Hendrizal.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

There are over 500 logging companies operating in Indonesia. APRIL and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) are the biggest. Other firms include Kiani Lestari, Kiani Kertas, Tanjung Enim Lestari Pulp and Paper and Sumalindo Lestari Jaya.

In the wake of the Greenpeace protests at APRIL's Riau concession, Finland's UPM-Kymmene, the world's third largest paper manufacturer, ended its pulp purchase contract with APRIL in November. It cited better access to pulp thanks to its raised stake in a mill in Uruguay.

The Finnish firm stressed in a press release its commitment to "forest management and forest harvesting practices based on the principles of sustainable development", and said this also applied to its use of external pulp suppliers, but declined to comment on whether its decision to drop APRIL was also triggered by the firm's forest management practices.

APRIL says it always acts within the law and takes a sustainable approach to logging, including by declaring part of its concession a protected area.

"APRIL is committed to ethical business practices and does not condone any action that is against this principle," the company said in an official statement to Reuters.

Meanwhile, APRIL's efforts to win support by Teluk Meranti villagers for its operation have caused a split in the community, with half the village tempted to support the logging and the other half fighting to protect their trees.

"This forest belongs to the people. What would happen to our grandchildren if there was no forest? Where would they get wood for the houses?" said Muhamad Nasir, 54, a farmer who makes about 34.8 million rupiah ($3,696) a year from his 13 hectares of farmland, where he grows corn and palm oil.

Nasir said he fears that if APRIL gets access to the forest, the wild pigs and monkeys driven out by the logging will eat his crops. His neighbour, Hariyono, 38, worries that if the peatbogs are drained to make way for acacia trees, the water that leaks into the river will kill the fish stocks.

For its part, faced with vocal and unwanted publicity from Greenpeace's protest, APRIL is ready with its own campaign.

"We have spent more than a million euro ($1.49 million) on research on how we manage the peatland concession to reduce carbon emissions," said APRIL's Sustainability Director, Neil Franklin, who added that 15,000 hectares of the firm's concession will be protected and another 5,300 hectares set aside for community use.

"We want to maintain, to manage Kampar properly."

Franklin also said that the peatbogs would not be drained and that the firm would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 55 percent by repairing peatlands damaged by previous farming practices.

Bustar Maitar, a Greenpeace forest campaigner involved in the protests at Kampar, is sceptical of APRIL's efforts to present its logging plan as environmentally friendly.

"It's clearly green-washing," he said. "What they really must do is to stop their expansion right now, which will destroy natural forest and peat."

($1 = 9,415 Rupiah)

(Additional reporting by Aloysius Bhui in Jakarta; Editing by Sara Webb and Megan Goldin)

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