[Updated at 12.45 p.m. on March 1]
Jakarta. It may be rainy season now in Indonesia, but for two of the biggest pulp and paper companies operating in fire-prone areas in Indonesia — Asia Pacific Resources International, or April and Asia Pulp & Paper, or APP — sounding their fire management strategy is important.
This year’s forest fires threat in Indonesia is not a small thing to disregard, with officials' predictions suggesting that the 2015-2016 El Niño weather phenomenon has been cited as the most severe ever.
April, controlled by Sukanto Tanoto’s Royal Golden Eagle, on Monday (29/02) held a technical workshop for its “Free Fire Village Program” for this year, a program that repeats the success of last year’s program focusing on a community development program that rewards fire-prone villages around the company’s plantations for keeping the area free of fires during the dry season.
Anderson Tanoto, a director at April’s parent company RGE said on Monday that the group saw embracing the community near the concession area of its operation arm Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) to prevent forest fires as far more effective than spending money on equipment and personnel to combat forest fires.
“During the drought season, we work together to extinguish flames [at forest fires], but in the rainy seasons people tend to forget [about prevention measures],” he said at the workshop in Jakarta, which was also attended by the US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake, the president director of Indonesia Oil Palm Estate Fund (BPDP) and Rachmat Witoelar, Presiden Joko Widodo's special envoy on climate change.
APRIL claimed that such program managed to reduce forest fire in the fire free village communities in which they are working with.
It said the program managed to reduce forest fires in fire-prone villages to 50 hectares last year. That compared to 1,000 ha recorded in 2013.
“We are ready to partner with other companies,” said Anderson.
In detail, RAPP grants Rp 100 million ($7,437) worth of development for villages committed to prevent fires.
A pilot program was started in 2014, starting with just four high risks villages before it was expanded into nine villages in 2015. This year, April aims to implement the program in 20 villages, while 40 other villages are adopting a similar concept under the support of other companies.
The program also offers land preparation for farmers using heavy machinery –to prevent the community from burning forest to clear land – and enables hiring of a local leader to lead a local crew and manage fire management during the dry season.
Anderson said RGE, through April, will spend about Rp 10 billion for the Free Fire Village Program this year.
Bayu of BPDP, who is also a former deputy to the trade minister, said the agency will adopt a similar program and this year and is targeting to implement it into 100 villages, setting aside Rp 33 billion.
“We call on NGOs and the local government [for support], and ask for such technical workshops like this to be held more often in cities prone to forest fires."
Bayu highlighted two challenges for such a program: finding the right technology for land clearing to replace burning methods; and finding the right system for water management during the drought season.
Asia Pulp & Paper, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group conglomerate has also announced its fire-management strategy.
Suhendra Wiriadinata, a director at APP, said the company has made commitments since last year to spend up to Rp 250 billion for its broad fire management strategy, which lists measures like prevention, preparation, early detection and rapid responses.
For prevention, the company said in a presentation revealed to the media on Feb. 18 that it provides “incentives” for the so called “Fire Care Community," which manages to have no fires in their neighborhood.
The prevention program also aims to improve water management in fire-prone areas. APP also offers another prevention program called the "Integrated Forest and Farming System," in which it seeks to develop up to 500 villages in between 2016-2020 to leverage their prosperity through agro-forestry development programs.
Not everything went smoothly for APP.
A coalition of Sumatra-based environmental groups published a report suggesting that peat fires burned 293,065 hectares of land within the concessions managed by suppliers of APP during last year’s haze crisis, Mongabay.com reported on Feb. 4.
The coalition members include Walshi South Sumatra, the Hutan Kita Institute, Pilar Nusantara, LBH Palembang, Jaringan Masyarakat Gambut and the Rimba Institute.
That area would be equivalent to 37 percent of APP’s holdings in South Sumatra.
Sinar Mas’ subsidiary and APP’s affiliate OKI Pulp & Paper Mills is developing a Rp 40 trillion pulp and paper mill that is scheduled to start operating by mid year.
The mill has been touted to be the largest in Asia, boasting up to two million tons of pulp in annual capacity.
The report from South Sumatera coalition, as quoted by Mongabay, questions how forest fires will impact the supply of timber for the APP’s mega-scale pulp mill.
Suhendra said APP could not verify the report over how many peat fires burned within the concessions managed by its suppliers.
But he said the company sees “integration” for investment between the upstream (plantation and suppliers) and downstream (paper mill) are equally important.
“With regards to the fire, our loss is huge, but it is difficult for us to calculate the amount... The bottom line is we really want much better prevention measures in 2016, to ensure that the upstream and downstream part of the business can equally progress,” he said.
Elim Sritaba, the director of Strategy and Corporate HR at Sinar Mas Forestry, APP’s plantation forest management organization, said APP will remain committed with its zero deforestation policy, which is applied to all current and future suppliers.
That means existing and future timber suppliers aren’t allowed to clear forests to produce more fiber.