Albion Monitor /News

River Dies as Paper Factory Thrives

by Kafil Yamin

Catching four pounds of fish in two days
(IPS) PEKANBARU, Indonesia -- For two days now, Dorin has been staying in a high hut here, waiting for armies of fish to pass through the small canal below so he can catch some.

But the fish have remained scarce. "I thought the fish flee the main river down to the small canal here. I was wrong," the 48-year-old villager said, referring to Kampar, the main river in Riau province in Sumatra island.

Accompanied by his 14-year-old cousin, Dorin has been combing the canal that cuts through the Riau jungle 12 km away from his home here in Pekanbaru village. So far, he has caught less than 2 kg of fish -- about four pounds.

Company blacklisted last year for water and air pollution and problems with local people
Dorin is among hundreds of thousands of Riau villagers who have been experiencing falling fish catches in last three years. He says he has no idea why the once bountiful fish have dwindled, and only knows that things are turning for the worse.

Even the province's popular fish, called patin, is hardly found in local markets and restaurants anymore.

Villagers living around the Kampar river say that fish catch has actually been dropping since the middle of 1994. But they say it was during the last two years that fishing production plummeted to its lowest level -- and greatly reduced their income.

Only a few villagers are aware that since 1994 the pulp and paper factory PT Riau Andalas Pulp and Paper (RAPP) has been using up water from the Kampar river.

And as the company increases its production volume, more and more water is channeled to it from the river that has long supported the residents of nearby areas.

Today, 100,000 cu meters of water a day is sucked from the Kampas river and channeled to the processing plants of RAPP, according to Ulf Raij, the company's production manager.

RAPP's present production capacity is recorded at 750,000 tons of pulp and 300,000 tons of paper annually. But it is preparing to double paper production capacity to 600,000 tons a year.

Environmentalists believe this greater demand for water will take an even bigger toll on the Kampar River, which is the only water source available for the paper company.

"If you take a huge amount of water away, you're also taking living creatures in it away. Fish embryos are sucked by such activity. That's why fish population in the Kampar river is reduced," said Pehr-Eric Patt, vice president for business development and environmental affairs of the Helsinki-based UPM-Kymmene Fine Paper.

Canesia Munoz, general manager of the forestry division of the paper firm, dismisses allegations that his company pays little attention to the environment.

"Before constructing the pulp and paper plant, an independent team had conducted an environmental impact assessment, from which we got a certificate," he said. In a preliminary study, the company took everything, including concerns about biodiversity, into account, he added.

But now, the company's plans for expansion are running counter to the livelihood needs of people who live by the Kampar river.

Fishing is the main source of livelihood and sustenance for villagers along the river's side, while they wait for harvest time to come around. When that happens, they work on and harvest from plantations that grow rubber trees, palm oil and coffee.

Fish from the river also help the villagers get by, at a time when prices of necessities such as cooking oil, rice, sugar and other staple foods have risen.

RAPP's record in environmental preservation is not as impressive as its size. In April 1997, Indonesia's environmental impact controlling body, called Bappeda, blacklisted RAPP and 13 other companies for water and air pollution and problems with local people.

Entire biodiversity in the river at risk
Locals say water is not the only problem they have with RAPP. They say the company, whose concession spans 290,000 hectares, of which 195,000 hectares is a logging area, has acquired some of their land without proper compensation.

And in December, the forestry ministry revoked the company's license for land clearing through slash-and-burn, which contributed to forest fires last year.

Locals say they are worried about future access to the river and its resources, saying five other companies, which are into pulp and paper, palm oil and rubber production, also use its water.

"If one company use 100,000 cubic meters of water, you can count the amount of water used by those companies altogether," said an environmentalist with the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi).

A visit to the river area shows a number of fishing boats standing idle. "They (ships) have been there for three months," said Supadio, a fisherman. "The fishermen left their ships and turn to small canals and river branches for fishing. Still, they don't catch enough."

While official figures on fish production in Riau province are not available, rough estimates say some five to seven tons of fish are lost from the usual catch every month given the deteriorating state of the Kampar river.

Apart from the decrease in fish population, the water level of Kampar is falling, Walhi says. It warns that it is not just fish population that is affected, but the whole biodiversity in the river.

Supiado, the fisherman, knows full well what this means. In the river's healthier times, he used to earn about $1.60 to $2 (U.S.) per day. Now, all he earns is a 3,000 rupiah, or 30 cents.

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Albion Monitor April 6, 1998 (

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