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Indonesian protesters dismiss Bonn Challenge as mask for APP's 'corporate crimes'

The global initiative to restore forests is being used by the paper giant as cover for its environmental and social misdeeds, say NGOs on the ground in South Sumatra.

Residents of Palembang, Indonesia on Wednesday carried out a high-profile protest at the launch of the Asian leg of the Bonn Challenge, a United Nations-backed programme to restore degraded forest land.

The protesters, led by local community group Hutan Kita Institute, say the challenge is being used to mask “corporate crimes” by Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), the controversial Indonesian paper giant they say has been using land without prior consent and continues to put South Sumatra’s dwindling forests under pressure.

Though the protesters do not explicitly name a company, APP is the only private sector backer of the Bonn Challenge, which was launched in the former German capital in 2011 with the aim of restoring 150 million hectares of forest globally by 2020.

The initiative is spearheaded by the German Ministry of the Environment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and was later endorsed at the United Nations Climate Summit as part of the New York declaration on forests in 2014.

Around 80 protesters from local community groups unfurled a banner and lay on the ground outside South Sumatra’s House of Representatives in Palembang. The banner reads: “Restoration - not amnesty for corporate crime,” and carries the social media hashtag #WeChallengeTheBonn.

APP joined the Bonn Challenge in December 2015 with a pledge to restore 1 million hectares of degraded forest land in Indonesia.

But protesters say that any forest restoration efforts must involve local community groups to avoid making the “same mistake” of the past that has led to the degradation of vast areas of land in Indonesia to make way for plantations.

Plantations often were developed without our knowledge or consent. In most cases, these projects have not benefitted us.

Aidil Fitri, executive director, Hutan Kita Institute

In a statement shared with Eco-Business, the protest group said: “Thousands of hectares of lands and forest have been used for industrial plantations, for the production of commodities like pulp and paper and oil palm to supply international markets. Those plantations often were developed without our knowledge or consent. In most cases, these projects have not benefitted us.”

The statement continued: “In fact they have led to the loss of our livelihoods and traditions, to the loss of our forests and animals and exacerbated climate change. There is an urgent need to address these problems and to remedy these problems and to remedy these past harms and restore our forest and peatlands and ecosystems.”

APP has been accused of many of these violations in the past, including the death of a villager at the hands of an APP-owned company’s security guards in 2015 that dealt a major blow to the company’s human rights record.

The group said that it welcomed the mission of the Bonn Challenge to restore Indonesia’s forests and peatlands, but cautioned that it was important to learn from the past.

Protestors said: “We must not make the same mistakes of failing to involve the people who have rights to the land and forest and who live and depend on these lands and forests.”

These groups must be given clear information about planned initiatives in advance, and their consent must be sought for decisions that will affect their lives, said the group, adding that it wanted to participate in the design and implementation of forest restoration efforts in South Sumatra. 

The group also claims that APP’s recent launch of one of the world’s largest paper and pulp mills in South Sumatra - the US$2.6 billion Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) mill located two hours from Palembang - was built without adequate consultation with local communities, and flies in the face of the company’s “zero deforestation” commitment made in 2013.

NGOs have fretted since news of the mill became public that APP does not have sufficient wood supply in its plantations to feed the mill, and South Sumatra’s forests are now at greater risk of conversion to meet rising demand for wood fibre.

South Sumatra was among the worst affected areas from the forest fires of 2015, when smouldering peatland engulfed Southeast Asia in the most potent haze air pollution ever seen in the region. Many of the fires were found to have been started in APP’s concessions, which led to the company’s products being removed from supermarket shelves in Singapore in October of that year.

In response to questions about The Bonn Challenge being used as a smokescreen for the launch of OKI mill and other issues, IUCN admitted that the extent of the organisation’s dealings with APP had been to “welcome their Bonn Challenge commitment.”

“Going forward, if progress is made, we will report on it; if it is not, we will report on that,” IUCN said in a statement, adding that the implementation of APP’s pledge is “subject to the overall authority of the Indonesian government over the use of forest lands.”

We believe in inclusivity. Without the support from the local community and civil society, no forest restoration efforts will succeed.

Asia Pulp and Paper spokesperson

IUCN said that the organisation tries to improve how companies behave by engaging with them, but that engagement “is not ‘carte blanche’ endorsement of all aspects of a business’s operations across the value chain.”

On the issue of APP using land without properly consulting local communities, IUCN said that it was opposed to such practices, but clarified that its engagement with the company was limited to forest restoration.

“APP has not consulted IUCN on this matter - if they did, IUCN would strongly advocate for a rights-based approach that is underpinned by free prior and informed consent,” said the NGO. “IUCN urges APP and the South Sumatran government to look into any concerns raised by these NGOs and communities.”

In response to the protesters’ concerns about the restoration of forest land without their consent, APP told Eco-Business that one of the key elements of the company’s forest conservation policy is free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

“We believe in inclusivity,” said a company spokesperson. “Without the support from the local community and civil society, no forest restoration efforts will succeed. Under the leadership of our governor in South Sumatra, we will continue to embrace stakeholders in our forest restoration efforts to find solutions, together.” 

News of the protest comes just a few weeks after sustainability certification body the Forest Stewardship Council announced that it was to begin re-engaging with APP a decade after suspending ties due to the company’s destructive forestry practices.

The move was greeted with caution from environmental NGOs that pointed out that APP continues to manage plantations on carbon-rich peatland, and claimed that the company was trying to rush through a new deal with FSC to gain accreditation for its products.

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