CAMPAIGNER: Sybelle Foxcroft.
OPINION: Sumatran tigers are elusive creatures.
The beautiful stripey beasts live spread out across a few remaining patches of dense jungle on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The difficulty in spotting them is part of the reason nobody knows exactly how many are left.
Best estimates number them about 400.
Equally as elusive is the truth around how effectively these critically endangered animals are being protected, and how much the activities of the enormous corporates which operate in their territory continue to threaten their survival.
It is a question first robustly put to New Zealand consumers in August last year when testing by activist group Greenpeace found mixed tropical hardwoods – or rainforest – in some toilet paper brands made by Kiwi company Cottonsoft. Greenpeace accused the company of destroying the habitat of tiger and orangutan to make a disposable paper product.
Cottonsoft is owned by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a giant forestry and pulp and paper company with eight mills in Indonesia plus large operations in China. It is part of the Sinar Mas group, controlled by the Widjaja family which regularly features at the top of Indonesia’s rich list.
Cottonsoft replied with its own testing which showed nothing but fibres from plantation forests in its loo rolls. It attacked the veracity of Greenpeace’s research and accused it of a scurrilous campaign designed to scare off Kiwi shoppers.
As a result of the Greenpeace accusations, The Warehouse has stopped stocking Cottonsoft products and the Pak ‘n Save and New World supermarkets have demanded the company gain additional environmental certification.
Amid this tiger-versus-toilet paper media storm, APP invited journalists to Indonesia to show them its operations firsthand.
Convinced that cutting down rainforest could never be a good thing and harbouring naive hopes of glimpsing a tiger in the wild, I travelled to Jakarta.
What I found was that whether traces of rainforest fibre ever end up in Kiwi loo roll is a tiny sideshow in a much wider environmental debate.
Since the early 1980s, when the Indonesian Government issued numerous concessions, or licences, for cutting down the natural forest to create a plantation forestry industry, APP has converted vast tracts of rainforest into plantations of pulp species such as acacia and eucalypt. Despite promising that by 2007 and then 2009, and now 2015, that it would be solely reliant on these plantations, it continues to also cut natural forest. That wood ends up in some of its paper products – although not, it insists, in toilet tissue.
Globally, corporates uncomfortable with APP’s sustainability credentials have quietly dropped it as a supplier. That includes New Zealand supermarket operator Progressive Enterprises, which last year ended its contract with Cottonsoft to make its Home Brand toilet paper.
Australian wholesaler Metcash axed APP as an own label supplier in August citing “continuing questions” about the impact APP may be having on Indonesian native forests.
This kind of consumer pressure is why Greenpeace battles APP on a global front, Bustar Maitar, head of forest campaign for Greenpeace Indonesia, says.
Greenpeace and Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) accuse APP of running its own global greenwashing campaign, portraying an image of environmental responsibility, yet continuing to be behind the clear-cutting of forests including elephant, tiger and orangutan habitat, and the draining of peatlands which oxidise and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“They’re just trying to increase the communications strategy, not increase the practices on the ground,” Maitar says.
Last month WWF released a report claiming an APP supplier had been clear-cutting forest inside the Senepis Tiger Sanctuary in Riau province, in central Sumatra, home to about 30 tigers.
Senepis has long been a controversial area.
WWF claims that APP portrays itself as the driving force behind the sanctuary, when in fact it donated only 8000 hectares of the 106,000ha reserve. The rest of the land APP advertised was actually inside an unrelated company’s concession, the greenies claim.
Meanwhile, the company was responsible for the loss of about 49,000ha of natural tiger forest in its nearby concessions. These areas had been proposed for a national park in 2004 but APP and one of its associated concession holders opposed the plan, instead promoting the sanctuary idea.
But APP says it had to manage the concessions which were under increasing pressure from illegal settlers and land speculators. It has helped create a working group involving all stakeholders – local and national government, the community, conservationists and commercial entities – to manage the Senepis sanctuary.
It is implementing a study to address the issue of human-tiger conflict, because the long-term plan is to develop a wildlife corridor to nearby Giam Siak Kecil, a 178,000ha UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which will allow isolated tiger populations to interact.
The peat swamp forest of Giam Siak Kecil is considered the jewel in APP’s conservation crown, and it was here that the company brought journalists to demonstrate an example of its efforts.
The lush jungle oasis is made up of two national parks and 72,000ha of production forest area run by APP suppliers.
By air, it’s plain to see the transition from plantation buffer zone to the untouched forest in the commercial concession areas compared to the less managed national parks.
The extent of illegal encroachment into the parks, allegedly by settlers, is alarming.
Greenpeace claims APP and its associated suppliers have gained concessions at Giam Siak Kecil by corrupt means.
Indonesian law prohibits the clearing of peatland that is over three metres deep. It also states that plantations may be established only in unproductive areas, and at least 30 per cent of a concession must be left as it is.
Greenpeace says most of Giam Siak Kecil is peatland over three metres, more than two-thirds has been cleared in places, and APP’s own 2007 Environmental and Social Sustainability Report says it is home to a range of endangered species. Land of such high conservation value should never have been touched, it argues.
APP is adamant all its concessions are properly assessed for conservation value and local regulations met. Only forest that is already degraded is cut, APP says.
But by flying over the area by helicopter I’m troubled by two triangular-shaped plantation areas jutting into the northeastern part of the reserve.
In 2006 WWF claimed APP had been responsible for illegally deforesting these two concessions. It got initial licences for them in 1999, but these were not definitive until October 2003. By then large chunks of the natural forest had already been clear-cut.
When asked whether tigers would have roamed through the trees in those two concessions areas before cutting, APP said “yes”. To me this is akin to clearing kiwi habitat.
But nothing can happen in a vacuum, says APP’s deputy director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement, Dewi Bramono. “Private companies need a way to make money also while still being there and supporting the conservation area.”
Plantations around conservation forests provide a vital buffer, allowing better monitoring and discouraging illegal encroachment.
APP does more than conservation work. The communities it operates in are so poor that it provides a wide range of social services including schools, housing, mobile health clinics, scholarships and small business seed funding.
“How many pulp and paper companies in Australia [and New Zealand] have to provide schools?” asks Aida Greenbury, the company’s managing director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement.
Speaking at a briefing in Jakarta where public relations staffers easily outnumber the journalists, Greenbury says poverty is the core issue.
The company has water purification, organic agriculture and biogas pilot programmes in two villages to try to provide people with their basic needs and discourage them from illegally encroaching on the forest. “What they care about is how to fill their stomach at the end of the day.”
Dennis Neilson, director of Rotorua-based forest industry consulting and publications firm DANA, has spent time in Indonesia.
There have been issues with the country’s plan to become fully reliant on pulpwood plantations, with pulp and paper mills expanding faster than trees are planted.
But generally Indonesia is getting there, he believes. “The period of cutting of cutover forest is getting to the end of both its commercial and legal life.”
But completely locking up the native forest as the green groups would like is not the way forward, he says. In a country of 245 million people, the land would be converted anyway.
Would the developed world prefer 100 million subsistence farmers chipping away half a hectare a year each, or large corporates increasingly operating under international scrutiny?
“You have got to step out of your shoes. These companies are working within their culture and history.
“If we cut them off at the knees, then we’re outside the ring, we haven’t got any influence.”
I don’t see a tiger on my visit to Sumatra, and I’m also no clearer on whether Cottonsoft toilet paper contains rainforest. But what is obvious, in these days of heightened environmental awareness, is that the consumer is king, and he will vote with his wallet where corporates are perceived to be found wanting.
TIGER PRIORITY FOR FIERY ENVIRONMENTALIST
Blonde and bubbly conservationist Sybelle Foxcroft is “well aware of the negatives of Asian Pulp and Paper”.
It was she who pointed these negatives out to Australian wholesaler Metcash, which subsequently dropped APP as a supplier of its own-label paper products, she says.
However, the founder of the independent environmental group Cee4Life is also less than complimentary about some of her fellow greenies.
Foxcroft has been asked by APP, of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, to work on a project to create a wildlife corridor between a 10,000 hectare nature preserve it has donated in Jambi, central Sumatra, and the nearby 144,000 hectare Bukit Tigapuluh National Park.
The Australian plans to work with Indonesian tiger conservationists on identifying and monitoring species around the preserve.
She believes she has been shoulder-tapped ahead of the more high-profile environmental groups because “they wanted to talk to a conservationist who would be open and willing to talk, for a start”.
It is well known that relations are tense, if not non-existent, between APP and the likes of Greenpeace and WWF, which have been highly public and damning in their criticisms of the company.
Greenpeace says less than a third of the Bukit Tigapuluh forest landscape is designated as a national park. Endangered tigers, elephants and orangutans tend to live in the lowland forest outside the park, and much of this area is zoned for commercial plantations.
As a result, companies associated with APP continue to clear important forest.
It is also the home of the indigenous Orang Rimba people, who are dependent on the jungle for their way of life.
Greenpeace says forest clearance means many of these people now live under plantation trees. “I went there and it’s very sad to see,” Indonesia campaigner Bustar Maitar says.
Aida Greenbury, APP’s managing director, sustainability and stakeholder engagement, says the company clearing the Orang Rimba’s area is not an APP supplier.
Foxcroft says Greenpeace and WWF have the luxury of sitting back and making demands because they are well financed.
“I see it as I’m working for the tigers. I’m working for these species to save their life.”
The big corporations exist and you just have to work with them, she says. This is a rare opportunity where the conservationists have been invited to help. “When you burn your bridges and say `no’, what sort of conservation are you doing? You can be flexible without breaking in half.”
* Maria Slade travelled to Indonesia as a guest of Asia Pulp and Paper.