Early this year, I was informed by colleague, Dr. Amy Choong, of an opportunity to visit the site of operations of APRIL Group, a leading manufacturer of fine pulp and paper, located in Kerinci, Riau Province, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
According to Amy, APRIL Group was interested in reaching out to scientists and academics, to get them to understand their operations and sustainability goals better. A special tour was being conducted, touted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Singapore urbanites to investigate more about sustainable forest management by coming close to nature, interact[ing] with local communities, holding dialogues with forestry researchers and appreciate the efforts taken to strike a balance between preserving the environment, helping the community and maintain[ing] business sustainability.” Several other colleagues from NUS promptly jumped at the chance for a front-row-seat tour into the world of paper production.
The Saturday of February 7th started quite early for us – our call time was at Seletar Airport, 7am. There we were met and briefed by APRIL Group representatives Gladys Wong & Jodie Koh. An hour later, we were bused to our chartered aircraft, a twin-engine Beechcraft, which we filled nicely.
Our chartered plane for the trip to Kerinci
After a two-hour flight, we landed briefly at Pekanbaru airport to have our passports stamped, then back to the plane for a short hop to Kerinci. The airport on which we landed (Pelalawan airfield) was developed and managed by APRIL Group. From the air as we made our descent, one could see sizeable tracts of land planted with oil palm and pulpwood trees.
Somewhere over Sumatra, oil palm plantations viewed from the plane
Immediately after deplaning, we were efficiently ushered into a company minibus and rode on to the first stop of the tour, the RGE Technology Center. People were already up and about with their work by then, the gravel road wove through an oil palm plantation and one could see the branching stalks, that once held the oil palm fruits, being discarded in orderly piles along the roadside. A few kilometers later, we entered the main complex and saw different types of residences for employees along the way. We had a security escort in a pickup truck driving ahead with security personnel manning all intersections, to keep the way clear.
At the RGE Technology Center, a blockish building on a hill in the middle of the complex, we were greeted by an in-house guide, who took us on a tour of their swanky exhibition area, complete with infographics and a nicely-done scale model of the company’s mill complex and environs. We were told how the company began as a lumber dealer in the 1970s and how it progressed into a successful international business dealing with paper and energy production. The step-by-step process of producing paper from wood chips was also explained in appreciable detail. What stood out for me was the ability of the paper mill to generate a considerable amount of power using by-products from the wood digestion process (delignification). According to the guide, there is enough electricity generated to power the mill’s various operations, with some left over to donate to the nearby town. Various environmental measures, community benefits and social projects initiated by the company were also highlighted. This was followed by tea and a technical presentation from one of the company’s forestry experts, focusing on crop improvement, site management and preparation and biological control of pests. I personally found the talk quite interesting, and was sorry that it had to be rushed due to a tight tour schedule.
Too soon, we were fitted with safety boots and driven off to the central paper mill. We literally walked through the factory floor where we encountered, and sometimes dodged, large rolls of white paper (each weighing a couple of tonnes!). There was a lot of machinery and noise so we had to wear hearing protectors, and a friendly guide took us through the steps of converting those large rolls into the A4-size pieces we use in the office. This tour impressed upon me how much paper is being produced in this single mill alone. One can’t help but think how big the global demand for paper actually is.
From the mill, we went on to the company hotel for lunch (and what a sumptuous lunch that was!). The large dining room also doubled as a lecture theatre as we listened to another presentation, this time on APRIL Group’s fire control policy. Haze is a burning issue (no pun intended) even among “Singaporean urbanites” who have had to bear yearly bouts of it as a result of forest fires from land-clearing activities in nearby Sumatra. The speaker emphatically stated that APRIL Group has a no-burn policy since burning is detrimental to soil health and puts their stands of pulpwood directly at risk. It was emphasised that the situation is complex and there are many intertwined and confounding issues such as Indonesia’s land tenure laws and the attitudes of rural communities towards burning for land clearing. While fires have occurred within APRIL Group concessions, these were apparently caused by elements outside of APRIL Group’s control. Nevertheless, fire is a serious concern for the company, and it has invested as much as USD 6 million in its firefighting capacity.
After lunch we had a quick tour of one of the nurseries where they were propagating the plantings for pulpwood. Two species of Acacia and a Eucalyptus hybrid are the tree species favored for cultivation. In the nurseries we were shown how seedlings are “mass-produced” from just a bit of leaf, stem and axillary bud, a bit of coco-fiber planting medium, and a good understanding of plant development, nutrition and hormones.
Assembly line, preparation of Acacia cuttings
Acacia cuttings, early stage
Older Acacia cuttings in outdoor plots
There was row upon row of seedlings and cuttings on long tables, waiting to be transplanted. Again, I was impressed by the sheer size and level of industrialization of the operation. Soon after we were on our way to our last stop, a natural peatland forest that was being conserved by APRIL Group.
According to APRIL Group, it has set aside some 250,000 hectares of natural forest within its land concessions for conservation. Its target is to preserve one hectare of forest for every hectare of planted land. Our guide mentioned that the particular patch of forest that we were visiting was about 1,000 hectares in size, and situated in a site with suitable hydrology. I tried to absorb all the tidbits of information that the guide was spewing out as we walked through a hot field of Acacia saplings, the forest edge some 600 meters ahead. But all I could do was try my best to keep up with him as he nimbly picked his way through the field, and soon we were among the trees and the undergrowth.
Acacia plantation with conserved forest in the background
A nearby canal, with its tell-tale tea-colored water confirmed that we were indeed standing on some peatland. The familiar hodge-podge of trees, lianas, and pandans loomed over us as we walked deeper into the forest.
Canal separating planted area from forest edge
Finally, we stopped at a clearing by a large pool. Around us were trees bearing metal ID plates with names like meranti, rengas and medang painted on them. Our guide regales us more about his thoughts on the flora and fauna of this forest patch. Someone started looking around for termites, while the rest of us simply took in the sights and sounds of our surroundings. On the face of it, it seemed like a good patch of forest.
Before we know it, it is time to head back. On the ride to the airstrip and on the plane back to Singapore, the conversations were invariably about the day’s activities and lessons. It has been quite a memorable trip, enjoyable and informative. I am quite grateful for the opportunity to learn directly from APRIL Group about its operations and conservation efforts. On the one hand, it is good to see that there are efforts to conserve natural forests and develop environmentally sustainable business models. Whether these will be sufficient or successful in the long run is difficult to ascertain. In spite of this, I remain hopeful that with the right partnerships forged – among businesses, the local communities, the government, scientists and other stakeholders –, a model that delivers prosperity without compromising the natural environment will have a high chance of success.
Contributed by: Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza, an instructor at the Department of Biological Sciences in the National University of Singapore.