APP takes big move to restore forests ahead of profits

In a surprise move, Asia Pulp and Paper has announced it will restore 7,000 ha of its plantations to aid forest conversation and slash emissions - losing a potential US$50 million of revenue in the process.

indonesia kalimantan peat river
Peat swamp forest, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Peatland development in Indonesia represents one of the single largest terrestrial sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia, CC by 2.0

Indonesian agribusiness giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) on Thursday announced that it will retire 7,000 hectares of its plantation land, marking the first time that a company has ever closed an active commercial plantation on tropical peatland for conservation.

The land earmarked for retirement is an active plantation area as large as 10,000 football pitches, and is spread across five acacia plantations on the Indonesian islands of Riau and South Sumatra. A team of independent peat experts from universities and development consultancies had advised APP that these these spots required immediate rehabilitation, and were critical to the stability of the surrounding landscape.

Converting these plantations back to natural peat forest will mean forgoing a wood harvest that would have generated up to US$50 million worth of revenue if sold as pulp, said APP, which along with its suppliers manages 2.6 million hectares of concessions in Indonesia.

Its managing director for sustainability Aida Greenbury said in a press statement that closing active plantations was not an easy decision for any business to take, “but we believe that taking urgent steps to protect remaining areas of peatland forest as well as reducing and avoiding emissions from peatlands must be a priority”.

This is the latest move by APP to lead sustainability efforts in an industry that has been accused of driving deforestation and biodiversity loss for many years. As little as three years ago, APP was the target of a sustained campaign by environmental group Greenpeace, which accused the company of violating its forest protection commitments and greenwash.

In 2013, APP unveiled a Forest Conservation Policy which promised to immediately stop development on forest and peatlands, and the firm has been working with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Alliance, and other environmental experts to distance its business from forest destruction and strengthen its sustainability efforts.

Bustar Maitar, director of Greenpeace International’s Indonesia forests campaign, said at the initiative’s launch in Jakarta: “We’ve been campaigning to protect peatland for years. This announcement is a big moment for us”.

The decision to retire plantations is a “part of Indonesian history we are proud of”, he added.

Global conservation group Wetlands International cautiously welcomed the announcement, but added that the 7,000 hectares area  “is just a tiny dot in a vast landscape”. APP and its subsidiaries currently have land-holdings in peatland areasa amounting to over 600,000 hectares of peatland, it pointed out.

Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International’s Programme Head on Climate-smart land-use, said in a statement: “This is only a small step to address an enormous problem”.

“It is urgent for APP to take action over entire peatland landscapes to stop greenhouse gas emissions and prevent major flooding disasters,” he added.

APP’s Greenbury told Eco-Business that retiring the plantations will entail allowing natural forest vegetation to grow back in the plantations, and in some areas, clearing acacia trees and planting native peat species in their place. APP will also build dams across canals that were previously dug to drain the peat in a bid to re-wet the land. 

Flooding the land will create the necessary conditions for swamp forest vegetation to thrive, while supressing the spread of dryland species like acacia, she explained.

APP will also work closely with communities on these lands to update them on the plantation closure process and seek their consent before going ahead to retire the forest land.

Peatlands are waterlogged soils with a thick layer of organic matter, which lock up as much as five times more carbon than tropical rainforests. Developing plantations on peat involves digging canals to drain them, which causes the land to dry up and sink, rendering it more vulnerable to land degradation and forest fires.

More than 100,000 hectares of peatland forest in Southeast Asia are destroyed each year to make way for plantations, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Development on peat in Indonesia is one of the single largest sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, and CIFOR predicts that continued destruction of this carbon-rich forest could release millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is one of the main contributing factors to global climate change.

By restoring some of its plantations, APP aims to contribute to the Indonesian government’s 2009 pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent below BAU by 2020, said the company.

We believe that taking urgent steps to protect remaining areas of peatland forest as well as reducing and avoiding emissions from peatlands must be a priority.

Aida Greenbury, managing director for sustainability, Asia Pulp & Paper

The land that will be retired was identified by Dutch applied research institute Deltares, which is also working with APP to carry out the largest mapping exercise ever on tropical peatland areas. 

Aljosja Hooijer, programme leader at Deltares, said that “the progress announced today is a first step towards the development of a new model to define best management practices in peatlands”. 

The two organisations are now working together to map out 4.5 million hectares of peatland where APP’s suppliers are located - an area the size of Switzerland - and understand the hydrology and environmental conditions of this landscape. The mapping area represents a quarter of the 20 million hectares of peatland in Indonesia.

Deltares will use Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) remote sensing technology, which uses laser pulses to generate three-dimensional information about the shape and characteristics of the earth surface.

Once the maps are complete in 2016, the research institute will be able to provide additional recommendations on how to minimise the impacts of draining peat landscapes, said APP.

Embarking on this project also demonstrates APP’s commitment to establishing a “science-based approach” to managing peatlands and protecting the wider landscape, and sharing its best practices with the government and other plantation companies, said APP.

“The reality of protecting peat landscapes is that no one company like APP can do it all alone,” said Greenbury. Other companies and the government both need to support this goal through meaningful actions too, she added. 

“This should include addressing the systemic barriers to forest and peatland protection, supporting forest restoration, and ensuring development opportunities for communities”. 

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