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Pulp giant stirs new conflicts with Indonesian villagers

Pulp giant stirs new conflicts with Indonesian villagers

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AIR MENDUYUNG, Indonesia (AP) — Less than five years after it pledged to end dozens of disputes over land and gain local consent for new plantations in Indonesia, one of the world's largest paper companies is backsliding on those vows. At issue: its dealings with a supplier that has been a butt of community opposition.

Asia Pulp & Paper denies it controls the little-known plantation company it wants as a supplier. But an Associated Press investigation reveals the paper giant has had close ties to the company, as it does with more than two dozen other suppliers it characterizes as independent.

Through the supplier, Asia Pulp & Paper is pressing ahead with plans to exploit 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of state land in the Bangka Belitung island chain off Sumatra despite resistance from 40 affected villages that some 100,000 people call home.

That runs against the company's commitment to gain the "free, prior and informed consent" of local communities and indigenous people when developing new plantations.

Bangka and the other major island in the chain, a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Javanese, Arab, Bugis and Batak peoples, are already pockmarked and polluted by illegal tin mining.

Villagers are intensely wary of industrial plantations after what some described as false promises from palm oil companies that wanted land.

Roadside signs declare "we reject industrial forestry plantations" and "No BRS" — a reference to Bangun Rimba Sejahtera, the company that's a front for Asia Pulp & Paper's expansion in the area.

"If this land is taken by BRS where we shall we go," said Yunus, the religious leader of Tambang Enam village, who uses one name.

"This land supports our society and economy, it pays our children's school fees," he said.

"We are ready to go to war. It's better than dying slowly. It's better for us to die at once."

Asia Pulp & Paper is a trade name for a group of mills and forestry companies owned by Indonesia's family-run Sinarmas conglomerate that together form a global paper and packaging giant.

Its products touch consumers around the world, ranging from photocopy paper, tissues and cigarette boxes to special types of paper and card that become bottle labels, burger wrappers, noodle cups and menu cards.

Asia Pulp & Paper says BRS is in the final stage of being approved as a wood supplier.

A spokesman told the AP in July that it and a second company under consideration, Buana Megatama Jaya in West Kalimantan, "both are independent suppliers and have no affiliation to APP or Sinarmas."

An AP investigation into the ownership of 27 companies that supply the Sinarmas pulp empire with wood has revealed ties that indicate that the group can exercise significant influence over nearly all of them despite its characterization of them as independent.

In the case of the two potential wood suppliers, Buana Megatama Jaya is owned by two people — one a former director of a plantation company owned by Sinarmas, and the second a current manager of the same plantation company.

Corporate documents show BRS, meanwhile, was a Sinarmas creature for most of the past decade.

In 2007 it was owned by Margaretha Widjaya, who was deputy CEO of Sinarmas Forestry from 2002 to 2008 and is a granddaughter of the Sinarmas patriarch.

Corporate filings show that BRS was owned for years by two layers of holding companies that recorded their addresses as Sinarmas offices and whose top personnel and shareholders included Sinarmas executives.

On paper, its ties to Sinarmas vanished in 2013, when it secured its license to the state land on Bangka. One of its two current owners identifies himself in corporate filings with a single name and the second owner, a former forestry ministry inspector-general, did not answer calls.

But BRS later employed a corporate social responsibility officer who as recently as last year identified his employer as part of Sinarmas on a social media profile. He has since removed all references to the conglomerate.

Visits to half a dozen West Bangka villages revealed a wall of anxious opposition to BRS. Thousands of villagers have protested against the company outside local government offices.

"Our people live from farming so whatever company comes into our area, they inevitably kill us slowly," said Sartojoyo, the head of Simpang Tiga village. "No matter how hard they try to force us, we will not give even one scrap of land to any company."

Though not affluent by the standards of nearby Singapore or Malaysia, villagers make a comfortable living from growing palm oil, prized Muntok peppercorns and other crops such as rubber and rice.

They also harvest natural medicines, wild honey and a lucrative species of mushroom believed to boost male virility from forests that make up about 15 percent of the concession lands.

It's enough to fund villagers' pilgrimages to Mecca and ensure young people aren't deserting the area to make money in big cities — a bounty villagers fear could be lost with the new plantations.

More than half of the 40 affected villages outlined their opposition in a May letter to the local government that they also sent to Indonesia's forestry and environment ministry.

In some places, village officials said BRS offered what it called a partnership giving villagers access to a small part of the land, but only for growing rubber.

Kasdani, the leader of Air Menduyung village, said the plantation company contacted him in May and offered to set up a meeting with Sinarmas itself, but he refused because no one in his village wants to surrender land.

"It's our livelihood," Kasdani said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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