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Interview with Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme: “From the point of view of the forest peoples, even though the forests are largely gone, the people are still there”

Interview with Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor, Forest Peoples Programme, focussing on his work on Asia Pulp and Paper. The interview was carried out by email in May 2013.

REDD-Monitor: Please start by describing your work as Director of the Forest Peoples Programme and as the co-chair of the High Conservation Values Resource Network.

Marcus Colchester: I have been Director of the Forest Peoples Programme since founding it in 1990. FPP was set up to link environmental NGOs concerned about deforestation to forest peoples, based on the slogan of the NGOs ‘we are not the solution, the people are the solution’. Since then we have evolved into a well respected human rights group working in support of the self-determination of forest peoples, by which we mean both indigenous peoples and other groups with long term connections to forests. I handed over the Directorship of Forest Peoples Programme to Joji Carino just this month.

The HCVRN is a quite different organism. It brings together industry, intergovernmental organisations, certification systems and NGOs, who share a concern that the High Conservation Value zoning system is used credibly and responsibly. Since its invention by FSC in the 1990s, the HCV approach has exploded out of its use for forestry certification and become one of the most widely used ways of identifying, managing and monitoring values in the landscape that need special care and attention. Increasingly the HCV approach is being used even where wider certification systems don’t apply. It is especially important where State land governance systems are weak. HCVs include both social and environmental values. The Network aims to promote best practice and make sure the concept is being used responsibly, the terms of which are set out in the Network’s Charter. I was elected as NGO Co-Chair of the Network some years back.

REDD-Monitor: Please describe your work with FPP and the HCVRN on Asia Pulp and Paper in the past. How will this change now that you are no longer Director of FPP?

Marcus Colchester: In May 2012, APP announced its new policy of applying the HCV approach to its plantations and it invoked the norms of the Network which includes conflict resolution with affected communities and respect for the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Given that APP had promised to apply the HCV approach back in 2004 but has never followed through, there was some scepticism from Network members about this announcement. So, as HCVRN Co-Chair, I immediately wrote asking for clarification of how the HCV approach was being applied in line with our Charter. APP responded quickly and a meeting was agreed to go into further details. There have been other meetings since which we have been careful to keep open and transparent: the details are on the websites. I handed over the Directorship of Forest Peoples Programme to Joji Carino just this month. My new job description is Senior Policy Advisor for FPP. It should mean that I have more not less time for working on private sector policies and practice and field work in Indonesia.

REDD-Monitor: On 5 February 2013, APP announced a new Forest Conservation Policy. This includes the statement that “No further clearance of areas identified as forest will take place” and the promise to implement the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent for indigenous people and local communities. Of course, APP has set sustainability targets several times in the past, only to push them back or fail to meet them. Do you think this new policy is different, and if so, why?

Marcus Colchester: Yes, the February announcement extended the policy that APP had announced in May 2012 for its own plantations to the independent concessionaires that also supply APP’s mills in Indonesia. It was one of the matters we along with many others had been pressing APP on during 2012, as the few remaining chunks of forest in their supply base are in these other concessions: there is little forest left in their own plantations. So, the new announcement does give greater credibility to APP’s promises to eliminate natural forest clearance from its fibre supply. We have been clear to APP that while we accept the promises in good faith, we will only judge progress based on what happens on the ground. As FPP, we have focused our attention on how APP and its suppliers will now address the rights of the thousands of communities whose lands were taken over without consent in the establishment of the plantations. APP is committed to resolving these conflicts and is developing a protocol with the help of TFT. We have made some comments on the earliest drafts but the details have yet to be agreed. On the one hand, this is a potentially a hugely important opening for the communities, yet on the other hand communities, NGOs, HCV assessors, mediators and above all APP itself face huge capacity challenges. By denying these issues for so long, the legacy of problems has become so much greater.

REDD-Monitor: Does this new policy change your work with APP? And if so, how?

Marcus Colchester: We only began to engage with APP directly after the announcement of its new policy, so this question does not really apply. Previously we had been working, rather unsuccessfully as it turned out, to engage APRIL to adopt a rights-based approach. Working with Scale Up, we did get some of APRIL’s senior management to make progressive commitments including through The Forests Dialogue but it seems the policy never had the support of the owners, so all this came to nothing. APRIL is now under pressure to shape up or it will have to leave the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

REDD-Monitor: Isn’t the new policy just an acknowledgement that it was inevitable that APP would eventually run out of lowland, easy to log forest where the timber can be economically transported to the pulp mill? An analysis of government wood supply data by Greenomics Indonesia concluded that APP only announced its new policy after its suppliers ran out of forests to log. In April 2013, Eyes on the Forest put out a report that states that APP’s new policy only protects an additional 5,171 hectares of forest and this is scattered across several concessions, “possibly too small to make a meaningful contribution to ecosystem or even to survive”. Having cleared vast areas of such forest, APP are now claiming to be environmentally friendly with TFT’s and Greenpeace’s help. How do you respond to this argument?

Marcus Colchester: From the point of view of forest conservation, I agree that it may seem a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. From the point of view of the forest peoples, even though the forests are largely gone, the people are still there. If this policy offers them remedy for the loss of their lands then it is really important and it could set a huge precedent for the rest of the country and the sector globally. The other question that we have been posing APP is: will they consider ecosystem restoration as part of the remedial process? If, in the long term, APP seeks FSC certification this question may also come back to them. What will they do to make up for the forests and other HCVs cleared since …. well, since when?… since 1995, FSC’s cut off date? or since 2004, when APP first promised not to clear HCVFs? The matter is being discussed but it is complicated. At the end of the day, APP is a business. If some of the plantations are restored as forest, then APP’s massive mills will have to get fibre from somewhere else. Where would you suggest? FPP is an idealistic organisation in the sense that we insist States and companies honour human rights and craft sustainable outcomes: but we are also realistic. You have to start from where you are, not from where you would like to be.

REDD-Monitor: In late January 2013, a week before APP announced its new forest policy, you took part in a meeting with APP. The notes of the meeting explain that APP had asked HCVRN to form an Advisory Panel for APP’s new HCV process (according to APP, this suggestion came from Greenpeace and WWF). The HCVRN Management decided that this was “premature, as members needed to be assured that APP was actually making progress on the ground”. Has anything changed since January? Have you had any meetings with APP since then?

Marcus Colchester: Yes, we have had two meetings since then (and we expect to post the latest minutes shortly, they are being checked off by APP right now). There is some progress on the ground in that conflict resolution has got going in two communities and some progress has been made, though there are important issues of crop choice and tenure yet to be resolved. The HCV assessments of APP’s own plantations are also half-way completed and we are getting near the point when they should go for peer review, another requirement of the HCVRN Charter. At that point we should get a better idea of what these commitments will really require in terms of action on the ground. The HCV assessments on the external suppliers are some way down the pike.

REDD-Monitor: In a December 2012 letter to Aida Greenbury, Managing Director of APP, you wrote that “The restitution of lands taken without consent and/or the negotiation with impacted communities of compensation for damages to lost HCVs … is a now a pressing matter.” APP’s new policy includes “Responsible resolution of conflicts”. But in the notes of the January meeting, APP stated that it “was not going to address this matter as a priority.” What is your opinion about the importance of restitution of lands previously taken by APP, and compensation for impacted communities including where HCV forest has been cleared?

Marcus Colchester: I think you have confused two matters. Our understanding is that APP is prioritising the resolution of conflicts. What it is not prioritising is making compensation for past forest loss, which is what we have been asking them to clarify.

REDD-Monitor: EoF reports that between 1985 and 2012, APP’s supplier companies cleared 683,281 hectares of forest in Riau. EoF argues that of this area, 77% was lost in “legally questionable ways”. Yet APP’s new policy does not cover the restoration of these forests. Isn’t this a serious omission?

Marcus Colchester: There are two parts to this question: the legality of clearance and compensation for past loss. The compensation issue has been touched on already. Personally, I am worried that the current HCV approach, when used as a stand alone tool (not even in a certification context), does not make any requirements for compensation for past clearance. This is a challenge for the whole environment movement dealing with all agribusiness and farming all over the world. Almost all farmland has been created at the expense of once more natural ecosystems. From when does it become unacceptable and who is to decide? At the moment we are trying to build on what APP has committed to but as you note we have also been posing these challenging questions to APP.

The legality charge requires much more detail to be answered fairly. New laws in importing countries will require much better governance in producer countries and legal compliance by companies to be secure from legal challenge. This is an important issue which I agree should be brought out but I lack the detail to answer today.

REDD-Monitor: In a recent statement published on, Aida Greenbury, Managing Director, Sustainability at APP, states that regarding restoration of forest land previously cleared, “We plan to work with stakeholders on how best to move forward on this topic.” Are you involved in (or aware of) discussions with APP about this? What is the current status of these discussions?

Marcus Colchester: As noted we have opened up discussions on this issue with APP. We have been told that the HCV assessments will (attempt to) identify HCVs that existed before areas were converted to plantations. These values will form part of the information on which APP will negotiate with communities whose lands and forests were taken over without consent in the past. In addition, the HCV assessors will make recommendations on the restoration of lost HCVs in already cleared and planted landscapes, and APP will consider those recommendations, and has said that if its business will not suffer unduly as a result, those HCV values could be restored. That said, if the HCV approach can be used by companies as a way of doing an ‘end run’ around sustainability, then we do have a serious problem. And to be honest I don’t have a clear answer. What do you think is the best way of dealing with past forest loss? If compensation is required of companies in Indonesia, will the same be required of loggers and pulp producers in Europe and North America? I am no advocate of ecological neocolonialism. I do think this is a vital matter for public debate in Indonesia and in the wider world, including in the HCV Network.

REDD-Monitor: I agree, this is an important issue for public debate in Indonesia and elsewhere. That debate should not be allowed to let APP off the hook though.

APP’s new forest policy allows timber cut before 1 February 2013 and timber cut from “scrub land” to be used by its pulp mills. Isn’t this a major loophole? Aida Greenbury states that, “Our target date for ensuring all MTH [mixed tropical hardwood] is out of our supply chain is August this year.” She also stated that, “Under no circumstance can natural forest be cleared under the new policy.” However, “young scrub” can still be cleared, after High Conservation Value and peat land assessments have been carried out. Does this, in your opinion, plug the loophole, or is it too soon to say?

Marcus Colchester: It seems there is quite a lot of ‘mixed tropical hardwoods’ (MTH) built up in log ponds and timber yards that will gradually feed into the fibre supply. And once HCV assessments are done, APP may continue to feed some forest regrowth into the system. This means that we can expect MTH to keep showing up in APP pulp and paper products for some time. This is unfortunate, as it will make it much harder for APP to demonstrate to us sceptics that there has been a change of practice. How do we know the MTH comes from this backlog and from ‘scrub’ and not from newly cut forest smuggled into the system by their suppliers or even their own operators? Water-tight chain of custody certification might be one way through this. However credibility in APP’s commitment will come much faster if APP pulp and paper products can be shown to be MTH free from now on.

REDD-Monitor: Fast growing tree plantations have serious social and environmental impacts and are very different from the forests they replaced. Modern pulp mills (such as Veracel or Fibria in Brazil) can operate very efficiently on timber from industrial tree monocultures, but that doesn’t make them even remotely “environmentally friendly”. Isn’t asking APP to use only plantation timber far too weak a demand? Especially when the company has plans to massively increase its pulp operations?

Marcus Colchester: Monocrop farming and agribusiness are indeed the engines of destruction on which all civilizations have been built. Most past civilizations have come to an end when the ecosystems they depended on have burned out. Now that we have a global economy, we face global burn out. The modern, monocrop, plantation-based, pulp model is a European invention that has been exported to the South and has wreaked serious havoc in these more populated and biodiverse places. As FPP our contribution to a better world is through helping forest peoples secure their rights including the right to control their lands and forests and say ‘no’ to development that they see as unfavourable. Other things being equal (which they are not), this should help the transition to a more sustainable world. In addition, as a member of HCVRN we seek to get companies to assess the landscapes they are taking over and, at the least, not convert those areas where HCVs are identified. The companies should then manage and monitor these areas in partnership with local communities to make sure they are sustained. If APP can apply its revised approach in all future operations, that will be a significant step in the right direction. However, in the end, we need far more to effect a transition to sustainability: we need rights-based land use planning, legal and regulatory reform, stronger protections of human rights and environmental values, an end to corruption, less consumerism and stable populations: that and a whole lot of other things. You can’t get all these changes by addressing just one company.

REDD-Monitor: In 2003, Human Rights Watch produced a report on human rights abuse and Indonesia pulp and paper industry. One chapter of the report was dedicated to APP’s (and it’s supplier company’s) operations.

Recently, Mazars carried out a “Human Rights Audit” on APP, but this focussed on pulp mill operations and labour issues, rather than the impacts of APP forestry operations. Yet in September 2011, Aida Greenbury wrote on the APP “Rainforest Realities” website that,

“Mazars has developed an audit process that is highly comprehensive and introspective. It is based on eight basic principles or performance indicators. Within each of those primary categories are as many as 100 different steps that are followed. The audit starts with corporate policy and works its way through the communication and implementation process at every link in the chain.”

That certainly sounds as though the human rights audit would apply to more than just the pulp mill. Has APP moved the goalposts? Are the Terms of Reference available publicly? What is your view of the Mazar’s Human Rights Audit?

Marcus Colchester: We have indeed raised concerns about the Mazar’s Audit which is unduly limited in scope. We asked APP to use a broader approach to human rights and to look at the entire operation, but we came into the debate rather late in the process after Mazar’s had been contracted. To use your metaphor, I am not sure the goalposts were moved but the goal mouth is a bit narrow.

REDD-Monitor: According to Aida Greenbury, 15 NGOs have agreed to take part in APP’s “Independent Observer” programmes and others are “interested in participating in the social conflict resolution and Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) pilot projects as well as the peatland assessment.” Will you, in your role with FPP or the HCVRN, be involved in any of these programmes or assessments? Please explain why, and how you reached this decision.

Marcus Colchester: Having consulted our Indonesian NGO colleagues, we have agreed to be part of the observer process. We have also brought to APP’s attention specific community conflicts that the Jakarta office were unaware of, one of which is where the conflict resolution is now being piloted. We have shared information about best practice in FPIC and HCV. We have shared out insights with NGOs working with communities. We have placed all the significant communications on our website as we see transparency as a crucial way of keeping this process honest. Some NGOs need to stand outside such processes, to protest and make criticisms – this is an important role in any reform process – but it is also important to open up space for dialogue and conflict resolution.

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  1. Another question for Marcus Colchester and Forest Peoples Program is why have they not taken a position against REDD? – especially since it includes monoculture tree plantations in the definition of forests. Could it possible have to do with the ton of funding they get from Norway?

  2. @Vanessa – The interview was specifically about FPP and HCVRN’s work on Asia Pulp and Paper, which is why I didn’t ask that question. I realised after the interview was finished that I hadn’t asked anything about REDD…