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 disputes 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.
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.