Oil palm gets all the attention, but what about acacia? Oil palm has become synonymous with deforestation in Indonesia and resulting losses of orang-utan habitat, increased carbon emissions, and unhealthy smoke haze. But equally large areas of peatland are being converted to pulp and paper plantations of tropical salwood wattles like Acacia crassicarpa and A. magnum, trees that now cover many millions of hectares in South East Asia. In Riau province, Sumatra, the two big pulp mills (operated by Asia Pulp and Paper [APP] and Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd [APRIL]) have around 75 and 45 per cent (respectively) of their pulp plantations located on peatland. The ways in which such forestry concessions have been granted and implemented have inspired dramatic protests: 28 residents of the Meranti Islands in Riau Province stitched their lips shut while demonstrating in front of government buildings in Jakarta (Jakarta Post; Transparency Int.).
My colleague Craig Thorburn and I investigate the dramatic events in the Meranti Islands in an article* just published in the journal Asia Pacific Viewpoint (official link; author pdf). Craig has several decades of experience in development and conservation in Indonesia, and has visited Riau numerous times since 2012, speaking with national and local environmental and human rights NGOs, forestry and government officials, and local community members. We show how the peatlands are a flashpoint for contradictory forces as varied as national economic development strategies (centred on big industries), national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and local struggles with livelihoods, self-determination, and sea-level rise. At the same time as improved peatland management forms a cornerstone of Indonesia’s climate change mitigation commitment, rapid expansion of the plantation sector is driving wide‐scale drainage and conversion of peat swamp ecosystems.
Our paper investigates how these conflicting policy imperatives play out ‘on the ground’, in particular local communities. We describe and contrast the divergent experiences of three large peat islands on Riau’s east coast affected by industrial acacia timber plantation concessions. A mix of dramatic protests, localised everyday actions and constructive dialogue has succeeded in delaying or perhaps halting one of the concessions, while negotiations and contestation with the other two continue. With the support of regional and national NGOs and local government, communities are pursuing alternative development strategies, including the cultivation of sago, which requires no peat drainage.
We show that while powerful state and corporate actors in one of the world’s most rapidly deforesting regions strongly shape the contours of socio‐environmental change, social movements can and do have impacts, altering trajectories of change in particular local and regional landscapes. They may not entirely thwart capitalist expansion, but, as Rajan and Duncan (2013) argue in the Journal of Political Ecology, they can and do make incremental improvements to peoples’ lives and environments. Combining everyday activities of localized resistance with scale-crossing alliances and networks of social movements, Meranti villagers and leaders, local politicians and government officials, smaller scale capitalists, and regional and national activists seek to moderate the strong political and economic forces affecting these islands, and to forge liveable compromises. Alternative pathways are appearing that suggest ways of managing these landscapes that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.
Along these lines, it is interesting that one of the two main pulp and paper companies active in the Meranti Islands, Asia Pulp and Paper (see also this e360 piece) has signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests in the context of the UN climate change discussions this week (see NYTimes). Let us see if actions follow words.
*Thorburn CC, Kull CA (2015) Peatlands and plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia: Complex realities for resource governance, rural development and climate change mitigation Asia Pacific Viewpoint 56(1): 153-168. doi:10.1111/apv.12045. (official link; authors version pdf)