Asia Pulp & Paper involved in numerous land disputes, shirking demands for more transparency—report

A new study reveals the paper giant’s trail of disputes across Indonesia. But even as the controversial firm claims to address the social harm caused, it keeps experts in the dark about whether community rights are genuinely respected.

Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest paper companies, is mired in more than one hundred active conflicts over land rights with rural communities across the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, resisting repeated demands from activists to be transparent about progress made towards settling its disputes, a new study has found.

While APP claimed last year it had resolved 49 per cent of the conflicts related to its operations, the report, by a coalition of Indonesian organisations and the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), highlights the firm has not publicly disclosed information on its clashes with villagers and conflict-resolution processes to date.

This lack of transparency prevents stakeholders from verifying the integrity of the information and obscures the question of whether affected communities have been informed about their rights, and whether the company has respected them, the report reads.

In response to queries from Eco-Business, the paper giant said given the complexity of social conflicts, it had decided not to share information on agreements reached between suppliers and communities, while withholding sensitive details also served to protect the privacy of villagers.

Commenting on the assertion, Sergio Baffoni, senior forest campaigner at Environmental Paper Network and one of the lead authors of the study, told Eco-Business: “A fair resolution process is based upon complete and transparent information, and benefits the community. If this is the aim of APP, I do not see a point in keeping strict confidentiality.”

We are afraid APP’s reluctance to share details on these issues transparently is because they have not been able to fulfil their social commitments and resolve all conflicts given the complexity and the scale of social conflicts.

Woro Supartinah, coordinator, coalition of Indonesian NGOs

The majority of the 107 active disputes—conflicts that have been identified and reported—the research has identified are concentrated in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra, provinces on the island of Sumatra where the controversial Indonesian paper company manages vast swaths of acacia plantations to produce the fibre used to make paper.

Most conflicts reported relate to disputes over rights to customary land or overlaps between concession and village boundaries, followed by conflicts associated with areas inside concessions that companies are obliged to reserve for local communities, evictions, and unfulfilled compensation.

Adding to these disputes are more than five hundred looming conflicts, with villages located within or adjacent to APP’s concessions at risk of seeing their livelihoods uprooted by logging operations.

When disputed land has been converted for pulpwood, conflicts become extremely difficult to resolve, according to Baffoni. He said in most cases, conflict-ridden villagers preferred taking back their land to ensure subsistence for their families, but while plantation firms might be willing to pay for past damages, they were usually less inclined to give up plantations.

Through low financial compensation, affected communities are often persuaded to use their land to grow trees for the company’s wood fibre needs. Such partnerships imply the firm effectively continues to manage the disputed area, blocking villagers’ crucial access to farmland and forests, Baffoni noted.

APP has a long legacy of land grabs and land rights violations. For decades, it has been criticised for acquiring land without community consent and inflicting harm on indigenous communities.

Some conflicts have been fatal. In early 2015, a 22-year old villager in Jambi lost his life when a dispute over ownership of customary farmland turned violent.

APP’s history is also riddled with environmental abuse. A 2011 WWF study estimated that APP had historically been responsible for the destruction of tropical rainforest more than 28 times the size of Singapore.

Singapore temporarily banned APP products from sale four years ago after the firm had been strongly linked to Southeast Asia’s 2015 haze calamity, which caused 100,000 premature deaths and released more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the emissions of the European Union.

The new report comes on the heels of APP being named one of the main companies responsible for the current haze crisis in Indonesia.

Many promises, little change

Immense public pressure to address its social and environmental ills pushed APP to draft a landmark forest conservation policy (FCP) in 2013.

Commitments include respecting the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of local communities. This means villagers should have the right to refuse industrial plantations on their lands.

But a 2015 study by the Rainforest Action Network showed that little had changed for communities embroiled in land disputes with the company. And even six years after the strongly worded announcement, progress is still sluggish, the new report reads.

The firm’s expansion has also been met with criticism, stoking fears that its recently-built giant pulp mill in South Sumatra and a paper mill APP intends to set up in India could eat into natural forests and lead to a new wave of social conflict.

The coalition that signed the report urges APP to fulfil its commitment to respect community rights and be transparent and accountable about the way it resolves social conflicts.

The firm should adequately involve affected communities and publish all information on the conflict-resolution process, while affected villagers should be informed about APP’s commitments and its willingness to address any harm it has caused, the study reads.

To resolve conflicts means dealing with humans, and dealing with humans can be very complicated.

Elim Sritaba, chief sustainability officer, Asia Pulp & Paper

EPN’s Baffoni said: “The first step to respect community rights would be to give back the land to the local communities and to address past harm. And a key part of this is full transparency.”

Complexity aside, however, Elim Sritaba, chief sustainability officer at APP, said the firm also withheld information to guard agreed-upon conflict-resolutions, explaining that experts from environmental and social NGOs had in some cases tried to interfere after disputes had already been settled.

“There is usually some complaint from others who were not involved in the process. They want to restart the process, saying it is not right, even influence the communities to raise the issue again (because they think the community) did not get enough,” she said. “Because of the lack of education in communities, (the communities) usually become confused.”

“Some people don’t want to resolve the conflict. They want to ruin the process,” she continued, adding that while APP did not disclose details to prevent external experts from interfering in conflicts the firm had already addressed, NGOs could share their views via the company’s grievance mechanism or in its annual stakeholder advisory forum.

“But we are very transparent if somebody wants to come to a closed room in our office. Then we can explain where the resolution is,” she said.

EPN’s Baffoni explained that negotiations between paper companies and communities often resulted in dubious agreements without previously informing the villagers about all their rights and the company’s commitments, making it a fragile solution.

Woro Supartinah, coordinator of the coalition of Indonesian non-governmental organisations (NGO) that carried out the research for the analysis, told Eco-Business: “Conflicts should be prevented by resolving them in more responsible, long-term oriented ways, not just by muting the affected community.”

“We are afraid APP’s reluctance to share details on these issues transparently is because they have not been able to fulfil their social commitments and resolve all conflicts given the complexity and the scale of social conflicts,” she said.

A myriad of hurdles

Land grabs in Indonesia are diverse and convoluted issues. One problem is the way land is managed in the archipelago, the study says.

Claiming ownership of more than 70 per cent of all of the country’s soil, the Indonesian government has granted millions of hectares to companies for plantation development in its relentless push for economic development and did not recognise traditional land rights until 2013.

But the landmark decision to place previously government-controlled forest lands back into the hands of indigenous groups has had little effect.

The new analysis shows where influential private or public actors are involved, claims to traditional land rights often have a difficult time being recognised.

Regency leaders have also abused their power to bestow forest concessions, resulting in large-scale, often corrupt transfer of land, the report reads.

Elim Sritaba said: “As a developing country, we cannot say that we can be free from conflicts.” She explained that about half of the conflicts the company had not yet managed to resolve were related to villages located within the concessions even before APP was granted permits by the government, and that the government granted conessions without community consent.

With many of the conflicts centring on the lack of clear boundaries between APP’s concessions and community lands, the government, in charge of demarcating village boundaries, needs to be more involved in conflict-resolution processes, Sritaba said.

Another obstacle standing in the way of conflict resolution is communities lacking sufficient documentation to support claims to disputed land, she said.

In 2017, APP set up working groups in each region in which it is involved in conflicts to allow stakeholders “who really want to resolve the conflict (and not) ruin it” to help settle the firm’s complex land disputes, but this will take time, Sritaba shared.

“To resolve conflicts means dealing with humans, and dealing with humans can be very complicated,” she said.

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