Indonesia’s forests make global headlines for all sorts of reasons. The recent forest fires in Sumatra which brought haze and air pollution to Singapore and Malaysia have again put the spotlight on the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest - and the companies that own the land that has been burning.
A coalition of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), called Eyes on the Forest, has identified the hot spots as pulpwood concessions, palm oil plantations, wasteland and forest.
The group - which comprises WWF Indonesia, Forest Rescue Network Riau and Friends of the Earth Indonesia - has even identified companies such as Indonesian giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Singapore-based Asia-Pacific Resources International as land owners of the hot spots.
Many would have forgotten that just two weeks ago, a different story dominated the headlines.
APP had surprised the community by announcing that it would set aside a large forest in Sumatra - about a quarter the size of Singapore - as a so-called ‘carbon sink’ dedicated to absorbing planet- warming carbon dioxide.
This forest in Riau had originally been earmarked as a plantation site, but APP was now leaving it alone to generate carbon credits. It pledged that the bulk of money received would go back to the local community.
NGOs were sceptical. Greenpeace spokesman Bustar Maitar said the project was welcomed, but expressed concern that, apart from setting aside this area, peat land was still being cleared in APP’s concessions in other areas.
Two weeks later, fires were devouring forests across 200 hot spots, mostly in Riau province. If anything, the concerns from Greenpeace now seem to be vindicated.
The growing tension between businesses and activists is as palpable as the haze at PSI 100. On the one hand, NGOs are understandably frustrated by the lack of progress on what they view as a matter of the utmost importance: reversing the pace of deforestation in Indonesia - whose forests serve as a crucial lung for the planet.
On the other hand, businesses feel victimised, claiming it is virtually impossible to police the vast tracts of forests on their land concessions.
There is no way to control the smallholders who start the fires, or to control the direction in which the fire spreads, they say.
Put both groups together in one place and sparks are guaranteed to fly. I was at a local dialogue last week attended by leading local environmentalists, academics and private-sector leaders.
The exchange between one spokesman from a listed agribusiness firm and a left-wing environmentalist got heated within minutes, with the latter demanding that, instead of dishing out quarterly dividends from ‘big profits’ to shareholders, these companies should do the right thing by investing in resources to ensure their land does not burn. The counter was that the issue was not a straightforward one, and that sometimes businesses have no control over who sets fire to their land.
Then another environmentalist said: ‘It’s your land, so take responsibility and sort it out.’
Observing the exchange, I wondered if there was a middle ground to be struck between this perpetual war of values and ideologies between businesses and NGOs.
There are generally two types of activism NGOs engage in: The first is the ‘stick’ method of boycotting, putting pressure and lobbying against a company seen to be doing the ‘wrong’ thing but which has enough financial and political clout to change things.
Aggressive lobbying by Greenpeace against the Sinar Mas Group and Golden Agri-Resources, for example, has seen the firm lose major clients such as Nestle and Unilever. APP has similarly lost clients like retail giant Carrefour. It is effective - but to only a certain extent.
The other method is the ‘carrot’ approach which favours engagement with businesses. US- based NGO Conservation International (CI) is a firm believer in engaging rather than distancing. As its Singapore managing director Landy Eng puts it: ‘We believe that engagement is an important part of the solution. Rather than ignore businesses and keep them on the outside, we should welcome their willingness to lead.’
CI has established a Climate Action Working Group, for example, that focuses solely on the haze issue. It is led by two businesses - Indonesian energy giant Medco Group and Singapore-listed agri-giant Wilmar International.
The working group holds regular meetings with stakeholders from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and has identified both the drivers of and solutions to the haze problem.
It is now looking to test some ideas in certain areas to raise land productivity such as providing education to farmers on how to fertilise land without slashing and burning, and the opportunities of growing higher-yield crops, said Mr Eng.
Carbon Conservation (CC), headquartered in Singapore, is another believer in engagement. It persuades land owners to set aside forests to generate carbon credits and acts as the go-between for the land owners and buyers of the credit such as banks and funds.
It is also the company that helped APP with its 15,600ha carbon sink project in Riau, and will be leading the project’s development and evaluation.
CC chief executive Dorjee Sun conceded that the firm had reservations initially about the project, but decided it should ‘walk with the big businesses that want to make a change to help educate them and guide them along the process’.
This especially struck a chord with me.
However tempting it is to throw bricks at seemingly irresponsible companies, such moves are counter-productive to solving the issues at hand.
At best, they will result in superficial gestures of change, and at worst, the companies could clam up, dig in their heels and get on with business as usual.
Seeing as of the world’s 100 largest economies, 42 are companies, there is an imperative to engage businesses to be socially responsible, rather than to treat them as capitalist monsters.
APP’s move to set aside part of its plantation may be regarded by some quarters as a public relations exercise in ‘greenwashing’, but it is nevertheless a good first step towards a possible solution: paying people to preserve forests.
A demonstration project like that could pave the way for more, and with firms like CC developing it, transparency issues can be ironed out and improved.
American writer H. Jackson Brown once wrote that ‘in the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but by perseverance’. Activists may find that a persevering spirit of engagement could be the best way to effect change in our modern world.