Their habitat shrinking fast, endangered species are biting back and could ultimately drive a multibillion-dollar industry to the wall
Forget the illegal loggers. The real enemies of Indonesian forests are wreaking a silent destruction with no need for chainsaws. The long-tailed macaque, the prevost’s squirrel, even the endangered orangutan, are the new bad actors in Indonesian forestry – and across Borneo as well.
But the trees disappearing in swathes from Sumatra are not of the pristine, triple-canopy kind.
They are in the 1.5 million hectares of acacia plantation from which the island’s thriving pulp and paper industry now gets most of its wood.
But, as the Straits Times has learnt, the animals are only part of a much wider problem that forestry experts say threatens the sustainability of the plantations and could ultimately drive the multibillion-dollar industry to the wall.
They say that by planting a non-indigenous species through what is now three seven-year rotations, companies are facing the same ecological disaster that the Germans experienced with imported spruce in the late 1900s.
“They should have a natural forest with mixed species and a longer rotation with sound socio-economic principles, less corruption and better law enforcement,” says one expert.
“It is simply not sustainable if they go on as they are.”
Nature, it appears, is now taking revenge on Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International (April), the two biggest companies that for years have been reviled for the destruction of the Sumatran rainforest.
A few years ago, local mammals developed a taste for maturing Acacia mangium, the monoculture species that delivers commercial wood crops in as little as five years on degraded or infertile soil.
The animals gnaw off the bark to get at the sap and its sweet inner layers of phloem and cambium, either killing the tree or exposing it to ceratocystis – a fungal disease even more difficult to control than root rot.
The animals are causing so much havoc that companies are now busy substituting their acacia for the less tasty Eucalyptus pelita. It grows more slowly, and there is another significant drawback: It does not grow on Sumatra’s peatlands.
The monkeys and squirrels have laid waste to half of the Acacia mangium, while root rot is destroying a similar proportion of Acacia crassicarpa, the species grown exclusively on peatland, which makes up about 60 per cent of the plantations’ total area.
Dr Chris Beadle, a plant scientist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, says root rot kills a tree in one year, rendering it commercially useless. Ceratocystis does the same damage in weeks.
Mill owners are already having to cut trees after only four years, which means a sharp reduction in resources.
Chemicals could be used to treat the acacia, but this would cost more than the wood itself.
From 1988 to 2003, an estimated 80 per cent of the 185 million cubic metres of wood fibre processed by paper mills came from tropical hardwoods.
Its own hardwood resources close to exhaustion, APP finally signed a landmark agreement with The Forest Trust (TFT) and Greenpeace in February last year to end all natural forest-clearing in its supply chain. TFT says the company is sticking to the deal.
Along with April, which has yet to attain plantation sustainability, the two forestry giants produce 6.2 million tonnes, or three-quarters of total pulp capacity, with acacia making up about 80 per cent of the feedstock.
APP controls 2.3 million hectares of concessions in South Sumatra and West and East Kalimantan. April and its partners manage 700,000ha of plantation in Sumatra and East Kalimantan.
With an additional nine million hectares allocated for plantation conversion by 2020, the forestry ministry wants to boost pulp capacity to 16 million tonnes a year.
That would mean increasing wood supplies from 29 million to 72 million cubic metres.
The industry’s current problems would seem to make this goal a pipe dream, but it has not stopped APP from going ahead with plans to build a new 2.5-million-tonne-a-year pulp mill near Palembang in South Sumatra.
Acacia mangium and Eucalyptus pelita are both indigenous to parts of eastern Indonesia, but when monoculture plantations were introduced into South Sumatra and Kalimantan, acacia was the preferred choice because it grew faster.
Little was done to understand the biology, and by the end of the first rotation, root rot had begun to appear. Over the next two rotations, it developed into a scourge.
Then, two or three years ago, along came the protected macaque. An accomplished swimmer, it inhabits Sumatra’s mangrove swamps and riverine forest, often in groups of up to 48 animals feeding off fruit, coconuts, leaves and crabs.
Indonesian foresters say the monkeys only learned to feast on the acacia sap after local villagers began felling the green belts that were their habitat, following the wholesale destruction of the original rainforest.
Dr Beadle says the macaques made a “massive difference” in a very short period of time, largely because once a tree has been partly debarked or otherwise “wounded”, it allows ceratocystis to flourish and spread at an alarming rate.
So far, the monkeys have not shown any interest in eucalyptus, but who knows?
“The logical thing is for the companies to switch to something else,” says Dr Beadle. “But you can never tell what the future may hold.”