Backlash on Fires Sets Peatland Police on Indonesian Paper Firm

Indonesia will investigate a local subsidiary of one of the world’s largest paper companies amid suspicions it illegally occupied a protected peatland area.

The Environment Ministry and the Peatland Restoration Agency yesterday summoned executives from Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, and scrutinised a permit it acquired in 2009 to open a plantation in Pedang Island, east of Sumatra.

Ministry secretary-general Bam­bang Hendroyono said that during the closed-doors meeting the company had agreed to suspend activities on the island ­immediately until an investigation was completed. No sanction had been imposed and the probe should take no longer than three months, he said.

After the meeting, RAPP president director Tony Wenas said his company “supports the government’s commitment to restore peatland areas” and would accept any recommendation from the investigation.

The meeting came after officials from the restoration ­agency, led by agency chief Nazir Foead, were denied entry to the concession area on Monday.

Mr Foead said agency officials planned to “conduct a spot check to see the conditions first- hand” after allegations the company was trying to open a new plantation on peatland supposedly protected by law.

He said officials had found ­canals suspected of having been built to drain water from the peatland and prepare it for a plantation. Officials planned to measure the depth of the peatland, which is protected if it is deeper than 3m.

In a video released by the restoration agency, Mr Foead is seen arguing with a plantation security guard who also claimed to be a member of the army’s special forces commando, Kopassus. The military has denied the guard was one of its own.

RAPP has said there was a misunderstanding, and it had ­always been open to government inspections.

Last week seven officials ­investigating a forest fire inside a palm oil concession area in ­Sumatra were taken hostage by a mob who threatened to kill them unless they erased photographs and removed a sign advising that the area was sealed and under ­investigation.

They were released unharmed after 12 hours when police intervened, but their cars and cameras were seized by the mob. The government believed the 100-strong mob was hired by the firm operating the concession, Andika Permata Sawit ­Lestarian, an allegation the company has denied.

National police chief Tito Karnavian said police were ­investigating both cases.

“Obstructing government ­officials from carrying out their duties is a criminal offence,” he told the newspaper Tempo.

Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar condemned the incidents, promising to “wage war against forest and land fires”.

President Joko Widodo has pledged more protection for the country’s carbon-rich peatland areas. In January, he established an agency to restore about two million hectares of peatlands ­destroyed in forest and land fires.

Scientists estimated more than 75 per cent of fires last year occurred on peatlands, some set deliberately to clear land for plantations, causing record catastrophic smoke levels affecting more than 500,000 people in ­Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

This year, better responses and better weather have prevented fires reaching such levels.

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