Indonesia: how the illegal loggers prevailed over the police

In July 2007, the police of the province of Riau, Indonesia, launched a massive operation against illegal logging. Riau, in Sumatra, is one of the last sanctuaries of the South-east Asian rainforest. The police filled 157 cases, outlined in 127 files, directly involving 14 companies accused of illegal logging, corruption and money laundering. All these companies were linked to the paper giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL). According to the police chief of Riau, Brig-Gen. Sutjiptadi, illegal operations costed to the state billions of dollars as environmental damage and lost revenues. 

In December 2008, the Riau Police halted the probe, after being advised by ‘an expert’ that the companies had not broken any laws. After two years of ingestigations, Riau Police Chief Brig-Gen. Sutjiptadi was removed and the new chief Brig.-Gen. Hadiatmoko issued a letter to terminate probe of illegal logging, and announced the suspension of legal action against the companies that associated to APP and APRIL pulp giants, media reported.

The Jakarta Globe remembers the investigation by interviewing its authors.

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The Jakarta Globe - How a $115b illegal logging probe against Indonesian paper giants was felled 

As a forestry expert, Bambang Hero Saharjo has tramped through jungles during his entire career, but when he waded into a controversial police investigation in 2007 about alleged illegal logging in Riau province, it landed him in such a dangerous spot that it almost got him killed.

Bambang, who works at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), was the leader of a team of independent experts assigned to assist an investigation led by the head of the Riau provincial police, Sutjiptadi, into allegations of illegal logging by more than a dozen pulp and paper companies.

The investigation began in January 2007 and led eventually to allegations that 14 pulp and paper companies were conducting illegal logging in off-limits forest areas. However, due to a lack of evidence, plus statements from in-house expert witnesses working for the Forestry Ministry that there were no violations, the Riau Police had to halt the investigation in late December 2008.

Environmentalists were enraged when the active police investigation tailed off following the sudden transfer in June 2008 of Sutjiptadi, the Riau Police chief, to a new post at the National Police Academy in Semarang, Central Java. It was his replacement, Hadiatmoko, who later in the year finally ordered the investigation closed due to a “lack of evidence.”

As a result, allegations against two pulp and paper giants that environmental activists repeatedly claim have abysmal environmental records, in particular in Riau, never had a chance to be proven in court.

Sutjiptadi has refused to comment on why it was halted because he is no longer the Riau Police chief, but Bambang recalls the devastation of seeing Riau Police officials shed tears when they found the probe had been ended.

“It had never occurred to me at that time, not even once, that they [the police] were going to stop the investigation. I was very confident that we were going to get them – Bambang told the Jakarta Globe – We got all the evidence, we made sure everything was covered — photographs, laboratory results. We even calculated the environmental damage and its impacts. What more did they want?”

The Investigation

Bambang’s involvement in the case began in early 2007 when Sutjiptadi visited IPB, where Bambang currently serves as head of the Silviculture Department, looking for forestry experts for his investigation into the 14 pulp and paper companies.

“He [Sutjiptadi] explained that they had been investigating companies in Riau for the possibility of illegal logging, as they found there were some inconsistencies between the regulations and the facts on the ground – Bambang said – From the first time we met, the police were very sure that those companies had broken the law.”

In March 2007, Bambang and Basuki Wasis, his colleague at the institute, joined the investigation team and carried out research. They first analyzed the companies’ paperwork, studied the government regulations on forest plantation permits and compared them to the facts as they saw them.

“I never thought that these cases would be big ones, that they were just going to be casual cases like others [I’ve handled before] – he said. – We never realized it would drag down two big [pulp and paper] companies. But if they were [guilty], they shouldn’t be allowed to break the law, because no one is immune to the law in this country.”

The Riau Police ended up investigating 14 companies, seven of which were affiliated with Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings (APRIL). The other seven were affiliated with Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper. Both RAPP and APP have long been accused of environmental destruction in Indonesia, including in Riau.

The Globe repeatedly contacted both companies seeking comment and information about the police investigations. Sinar Mas Forestry, the exclusive pulpwood fiber supplier to APP’s two pulp mills, declined to comment and RAPP did not return numerous calls and e-mails.

Determined Police Chief

The investigation traces its roots to the nongovernmental group Forest Rescue Riau Network (Jikalahari), which submitted a report to Sutjiptadi in 2007, just a few months after he was appointed provincial police chief. It claimed that 24 pulp and paper companies were conducting illegal logging. “He had them [the reports] closely analyzed, and opened up to NGOs about these cases. We [green groups] had intense discussions concerning these issues with him at that time,” Jikalahari coordinator Susanto Kurniawan said.

But why had Sutjiptadi, as Riau Police chief at the time, been so eager to launch investigations into illegal logging? “Because Sutjiptadi considered this an extraordinary problem in Riau, and no one had ever touched it,” Susanto said.

Susanto recalled one of Sutjiptadi’s “unconventional” investigation methods, when he went into Riau’s forests to see the destruction for himself. “Normally, for illegal logging cases, the police only play their role when logs are brought out [of the forests],” Susanto said, “but he went into the forests wanting to know what kinds of problem he was dealing with, and also to make sure that his findings could be verified and proven.”

A videotape dated July 21, 2007, and made available by Greenpeace showed the Riau Police’s Illegal Logging Special Team, headed directly by Sutjiptadi, conducting a field investigation into a concession held by one of the 14 suspected pulp and paper companies, located in Riau’s Indragiri Hilir district.

They surveyed the conditions in the forests from above by helicopter and took notes on areas that were suspected of having been illegally logged with a Global Positioning System device.

In the video, a visibly shocked Sutjiptadi was occasionally heard saying, “[It’s] crazy,” as he watched kilometers of logs lined up along the river banks. “That is encroaching on natural forests, it’s crazy.”

“They have chopped down trees from natural forests, which is not allowed, and we have found millions of cubic meters of logs – the police chief said in the video – The permits were granted by the bupati [the local district chief], which was not in accordance with existing regulations. That’s why we’re confiscating all of this [the logs].”

The video showed Sutjiptadi standing in the middle of a heavily deforested area, saying permit violations were the cause of the massive destruction. “All that is left is monoculture, which will decrease forest production – he said – We have found piles of logs at least 7.5 kilometers long.”

Hundreds of Suspects

After countless field investigations and document analysis, the Riau Police in 2008 named 107 suspects: 53 managers from the pulp and paper companies, 30 forestry agency officials, 20 licensing officials and four private consultants that verified Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal) documents.

In total, about 200 people were named suspects during the two-year investigation, which centered on alleged illegal logging and the issuance of permits to operate forest plantations.

“I want all activities in this area stopped. All logging should be stopped right away, and I will be questioning the district chief [of Indragiri Hilir, Raja Thamsir Rachman] for an explanation of this because he issued permits that do not match procedures – Sutjiptadi said on the video – I will also be asking the president’s permission to question him. I don’t want to see any logs coming out from the site.”

Police investigators then went after higher-ranking government officials, declaring five former heads of Riau’s forestry agency — identified only as S.T., F.S., A.R., B.H. and S. — as suspects. In 2009, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) declared three of them — S.T., A.R. and B.H. — suspects in its own investigation into the issuance of permits involving Tengku Azmun Jaafar, the former chief of Riau’s Pelalawan district who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September 2008.

In 2010, Asral Rachman, who headed the Riau forestry agency in 2004 and 2005, was sentenced to 2.5 years prison and fined Rp 75 million ($8,775) for corruption relating to the case involving Azmun and the issuance of permits in Pelalawan from 2001 to 2006. Asral was proven to have received Rp 600 million for agreeing that forest plantation permits could be issued to Madukoro and Harapan Jaya, two companies affiliated with RAPP.

Bambang recalled how fearless Riau Police investors were in cracking down on illegal logging and pursuing their investigation, relentlessly trying to question local district chiefs, Riau Governor Rusli Zainal and even Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban as witnesses.

The police action was nothing short of shock therapy. Officials at almost all levels of Riau’s government were targeted.

“He [Sutjiptadi] was always saying, ‘let civilian security guards deal with those trucks [filled with illegal logs] and their drivers, but us, the police, need to deal with the real ones’?” Bambang said, referring to the big pulp and paper companies, as he recalled how consistent Sutjiptadi was in maintaining the rhythm of the investigation.

“Not one day passed without meetings until late at night at his house to discuss and examine the illegal logging cases,” Bambang said, referring to Sutjiptadi. “He also briefed his police staff in district areas to understand all the [forestry] regulations. He did not just hand out copies of the regulations; he really explained it to them.”

“I used to only get three hours of sleep a night, spending most nights in the forests, but our pace never slowed down. Instead, it was increasing – Bambang said – I enjoyed those moments as the best experience in my career, because we got all the support from the police, and the way we investigated the permits.”

Meanwhile, Basuki recalled how intense and careful Sutjiptadi was in leading the investigations. He said he later learned that the police had even checked up on him and his colleague, Bambang.

“Maybe because they wanted the work to be done perfectly, they were working from night till dawn. We thought that we were just going to be there to get [wood and soil] samples, but it was much more than that – he said. – I remember that he [Sutjiptadi] suddenly asked us to swear loyalty on the Merah Putih [the national flag].”


The Regulations

Riau Police investigators found irregularities between the reports of the pulp and paper companies and evidence on the ground, as well as a 2000 ministerial decree on procedures for issuing permits for forest plantations.

The decree, issued by the Ministry of Forestry, states that forest plantations (Hutan Tanaman, or HT) only receive permission for planting, preserving, securing, harvesting, managing and marketing forest plantation products. This is the type of permit held by the 14 companies investigated.

“[The permit] does not mention anything about chopping down trees,” Bambang said. “Different articles [state that] forest plantations are not to be run in natural forests that still have the possibility to grow naturally.”

“Plantations should be run in ‘vacant areas,’ meaning areas with no forest vegetation, so empty land or land with reeds or bushes,” he said, “or logged-over areas with round wood potential of 10 centimeters in diameter for all types of wood, and with a volume no more than 5 cubic meters per hectare.” What investigators found were logs that were more than 10 centimeters in diameter — some were as big as 90 centimeters — which means they came from old trees in natural forests. “Do you call that reeds or bushes? – Bambang said. – Even normal people looking at the regulations will automatically understand that forest plantations are only meant for damaged forest areas.”

From just one pulp and paper company, NMP, investigators calculated state losses totaling Rp 93.49 trillion from the destruction of natural forests. Basuki estimated that Indonesia’s losses as a whole from the 14 companies’ operations surpassed a staggering Rp 1,000 trillion — or $115 billion.

“One shouldn’t see trees as mere sticks or pipes planted in the ground. If we cut down one tree, it is not that tree alone, but the whole ecosystem there that we are affecting – Bambang said. – It’s not that simple to measure environmental losses just by counting the value of the logs, but other factors, such as loss of biodiversity, need to be taken into account.”

From the investigations, Riau Police also managed to confiscate 22,392 logs totaling 94,218 cubic meters; 368.1 million cubic meters of raw shales; 32 trucks, one tugboat and heavy machinery. With these findings, the Riau Police used two laws — the 1997 Environmental Law and the 1999 Forestry Law — to charge 107 of the 200 suspects initially named.

What Went Wrong?

Sutjiptadi, the Riau Police chief, and Bambang, the forestry expert, seemed certain that they had strong legal cases with more than enough evidence, expert witness statements and witnesses. So what went wrong?

For starters, Sutjiptadi was replaced in mid-2008 by Hadiatmoko, former head of the special crimes directorate of the National Police in Jakarta. After that, Bambang claims, he was never contacted again by the Riau Police about the illegal logging cases.

He only received word from police sources that the case files were being shuffled back and forth between the Riau Police and the Riau provincial prosecutors’ office. Then he received word that the Riau Police decided to halt the investigation due to lack of evidence after in-house expert witnesses from the Forestry Ministry stated that the companies were licensed.

The testimonies of Bambang and Basuki, and those of at least five other independent expert witnesses from prominent Indonesian universities, were not taken into consideration when the Riau Police decided to halt the investigation. “Very sad. We had all the data, pictures, coordinates, even laboratory results and expert witnesses. It was all there,” Bambang said.

Other expert witnesses involved in the investigations were Suhardi from Gadjah Mada University; law professors Alfi Syahrin and Ningrum Sirait from North Sumatra University; Mas Achmad Santosa, an environmental law expert from the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law; Muladi, governor of the National Resilience Institute; and Anna Erliana, a University of Indonesia law professor.

Basuki noted that all the independent expert witnesses stated that the activities of the 14 pulp and paper companies violated the law. “Our statements were ravaged by witnesses from the Forestry Ministry, who stated that the procedures were not against the law,” he said.

Mas, who now serves as a member of the Judicial Mafia Eradication Task Force, confirmed that he was an expert witness along with Muladi, given that they were the “founding fathers” of the 1997 Environmental Law. “As one of those who designed the 1997 Environmental Law, I explained [to the investigators] that the law recognized ‘corporate criminal liability,’ – Mas said – I didn’t say whether the companies were right or wrong; those are the conclusions that are supposed to be made by the prosecutor and forestry experts.”

Basuki said he had been convinced the cases would end up in court, as there was enough evidence. “But I don’t know where or what went wrong. I think the [Riau] Police had done a tremendous job, but the sending of the [case] documents back and forth was a bit confusing to me. You don’t have to be a genius to know that if we cut down trees, then it will damage the environment. We watched how trees burned down and elephants died at the site. That happened right in front of our eyes.”

As a forester, Bambang said he felt frustrated because a strong belief seems to have developed that if you have permits, you can do anything in forest areas. However, “If you have a driver’s license, it doesn’t mean that you can run over people as you wish. There are regulations you need to follow,” he said.

A Different Logic

However, Bedjo Santosa, an in-house expert witness from the Forestry Ministry, stands firm on his statements that the 14 companies had not broken any laws or regulations.

Based on the official police letter to stop an investigation, called an SP3, the Riau Police halted the cases against the 14 companies, the local government officials and the private consultants on the grounds that they had legal permits.

Their logic was that the development of industrial forest plantations begins with destroying natural forests, public officials are allowed to issue plantation permits and there was no proof of environmental damage but only administrative violations.

“I am asking you this: if you had obtained your driver’s license from the authorities but you were never tested by them [to get the license], is the license still legal or illegal? It’s still legal, right, as long as the license was not revoked. That’s how I see it – Bedjo told the Globe. – It’s the same with the permits issued by the district heads. As long as it was issued by people with the authority [to do so], then yes, I’d say that it’s legal. – In the Riau cases, he stressed, all people being investigated were holding legal permits – So, if permit holders committed something wrong, it was not [categorized] as illegal. It was [still] legal but wrong, for instance wrong for not fulfilling the standards for the permits, wrong for not implementing the procedures,” Bedjo said. “I firmly stated [at that time] that they were permit holders authorized to manage their concession areas, but it could be justified there was an administrative violation. However, there were different interpretations from the investigators about whether they had violated the law.”

Bedjo argued there were inconsistencies between the Forestry Law and other regulations.
“They have always pushed that ‘forest plantation areas are located in reed, bush and vacant areas,’ but ignore the next words: ‘… and logged in areas with round wood potential from all kinds of woods with less than 5 cubic meters per hectare,’ ” Bedjo said.

“Meanwhile, based on another ministerial regulation, round wood potential are logs with a diameter of more than 30 centimeters. That’s why the charges were not strong — because we could not say it’s wrong or right. It’s called inconsistency.”

Bedjo said the 1999 Forestry Law had another inconsistency pertaining to the development of industrial forest plantations being prioritized for non-productive areas. “The next questions would be, based on the law, is it permitted to manage industrial forest plantations? My answer is this: the Forestry Ministry had been granted the power to regulate and manage the forestry sector. So, the minister did not violate the law — but this is interpreted otherwise by NGOs.£

Bedjo said that if the minister issued permits for productive areas, he was allowed to do so, because he had been granted legal authority.

On the charges of damaging forests, he challenged the definition in the Forestry Law, which states that damage means actions that cause changes in the function of a forest, or changes to their protection, conservation or production.

“For HT, it can be ascertained it takes place in production forests. So, if production natural forests are turned into production forest plantations, they are not changing any functions because they are for production,” Bedjo said. “Though it is a natural forest, its function is as a production [forest], so as long as it is still standing as a forest and does not change its function, then there is no [forest] damage. It’s different with protected forests, which are intended for protection. If even one tree is chopped down, then its function is disrupted and it can be considered as damaging protected forests.”

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