Indonesia: The health impacts of living near Indah Kiat’s pulp and paper mills

27 Aug

Pollution from Indah Kiat’s massive pulp mills has enormous impacts on the health of people living near to the mill.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 97, August 2005.




In 1999, the World Bank’s Economics of Industrial Pollution Control research team published a report titled “Greening Industry“. The report, which was the result of “six years of research, policy experiments, and firsthand observation”, described Asia Pulp and Paper’s PT Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper as a “success story”.

Indah Kiat’s operations at Perawang, Sumatra tell a different story, at least for local people. Indah Kiat started its first pulp mill at Perawang in 1984 with an outdated factory imported from Taiwan. The 100,000 tonnes a year pulp mill used elemental chlorine and wastes were discharged into the Siak River.

According to the World Bank, protests from local villagers about pollution from Indah Kiat’s Perawang mill, led to “round one of the mill’s cleanup”. In 1992, Indonesia’s Environmental Impact Management Agency, BAPEDAL, mediated an agreement in which, the World Bank tells us, Indah Kiat agreed to meet the villagers’ demands.

Indah Kiat’s factory at Perawang now covers an area of 400 hectares and has a capacity of two million tons a year of pulp and 700,000 tons a year of paper. Indah Kiat’s new pulp mills use technology that is “largely chlorine free” according to the World Bank. Indah Kiat, the Bank would have us believe, is “an environmental paragon”.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the World Bank’s enthusiasm about the environmental benefits of a massive industrial project bears little relation to reality. In 2004, Mats Valentin and Kristina Bjurling, researchers with Swedish NGO SwedWatch, reported that Indah Kiat uses a mixture of chlorine bleaching and elemental chlorine free (ECF) bleaching. Indah Kiat’s management told SwedWatch that the company planned to change fully to ECF technology in the future, but added that “such an investment would be too large to bear right now”.

In 2001, John Aglionby of the UK Guardian newspaper visited Indah Kiat’s mill in Perawang. He described what he saw as “a monster blot on the landscape”. The company’s track record “has been a catalogue of environmental devastation, blatant disrespect for the local community and ignoring Indonesia’s laws through a mixture of bullying and pay-offs to officials,” Aglionby wrote. The journalist uncovered a list of payments made by Indah Kiat to government officials, police and army officers.

Six years research, it seems, did not help the World Bank’s ace research team to uncover any pay-offs to government officials. The Bank’s “Greening Industry” states simply that Indah Kiat’s operation in Perawang “is fully compliant with national pollution regulations”.

A year after the “Greening Industry” report came out, Inge Altemeier, a German film- maker, visited Sumatra to investigate the impact of pollution from pulp mills on local people and their environment.

She found and filmed an illegal outlet from Indah Kiat’s mill, which the company used at night. During the day the output was not in use, but the air stank and dead fish floated in the river.

In a village near Indah Kiat’s mill, people complained about the bad smell and told the film-maker that they were suffering from itching, headaches and vomiting. A villager called Tasjudin showed Altemeier his garden. Since Indah Kiat arrived, there are no more coconuts on his trees. The fruit on his trees is covered in black spots and it rots before it ripens. “Indah Kiat is ruining our lives. But what am I to do? This is my home, I have to live here,” Tasjudin said.

Before Indah Kiat built its pulp mill, people could fish in the Siak River. They used the river for drinking water and for bathing in. Since villagers can no longer drink from the river, they demanded that Indah Kiat provide them with clean water. The company gave them a water pump. But villagers found that the ground water was also polluted and smelled bad. Villagers are forced to buy bottled water to drink. Many still wash in the river because there is not enough pumped water especially in the dry season.

Trabani Rab is a medical professor who has been monitoring the impacts of Indah Kiat’s mill on villagers’ health for several years. Altemeier travelled with him as he visited villages on the River Siak. In two days, he diagnosed more than 500 cases of serious skin diseases.

Earlier this year, two Indonesian NGO researchers, Rully Syumanda, Forest Campaigner with WALHI, and Rivani Noor, from the Community Alliance for Pulp Paper Advocacy, interviewed people in villages near to Indah Kiat’s mill in Perawang. They also spoke to people living in Perawang. Villagers told them their vegetables, chillies and flowers did not grow normally, especially in the dry season. During the rainy season, a many of the villagers’ hens and ducks die. They told the researchers they were sure that the cause was the smoke containing harmful chemicals from Indah Kiat’s mill.

From 1987 to 1996, the air smelled very bad, villagers said. It has improved since Indah Kiat installed a filtering system on factory chimneys. But the air is still polluted and still causes respiratory problems, especially for visitors.

Villagers told Syumanda and Noor that before the mill started operations, fishers could catch 40 to 50 kilogrammes of fish a day in the Siak River. Today, they are lucky to catch four or five kilogrammes. Sometimes, they said, the river smells really bad and they cannot catch anything. Every month, the river gives off a bad smell for a week.

While consultants and financiers of Indah Kiat defend the company by pointing to company records of emissions from its factories, the smell, the pollution, the poisoned river and the dead fish remain. Local people continue to suffer from headaches, itching and incurable skin diseases. Far from being an “environmental paragon”, Indah Kiat is destroying lives and livelihoods.

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