Scope#18 | MHP/TEL

The Path to Reviving Pulp and Afforestation Businesses in South Sumatra

About an hour by plane from Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta is the South Sumatran capital city of Palembang. Another 4 hours by car, and you will reach an immense Eucalyptus Perita forest, 1.4 times the size of Tokyo; there, toiling on the ground between the trees, are the young men of Marubeni.
During the week, the men trek deep into the mountains. They wake up at first light to begin their day of hard work in the forest and at night they sleep in campsites in the woods. There is no internet in the mountains; the roads are poor, causing cars to bounce and rattle, and encounters with large lizards, cobras and even humongous boars are not uncommon. Far away from life in the city, the workers from Marubeni collaborate with staff members from a variety of different countries and, using a mix of English and Indonesian, the crew work together to make sure that the trees are growing according to plan; they monitor the forest for the outbreak of any problems and discuss ways to improve the operation. These Marubeni expats, who manage the work on the frontlines, are both reliable and motivated.

5 years ago, PT. Musi Hutan Persada (MHP), the company that owns the forest area, was confronted with a terrible crisis – the Acacia forest which they had been growing had been damaged badly from disease and most of the trees in the forest were dead. MHP and PT. TEL, a paper pulp factory to which MHP supplies lumber, both sustained heavy losses. MHP quickly switched their Acacia trees out for the more durable Eucalyptus Perita trees which are also well-suited for MHP’s soil; naturally though, trees do not grow overnight. Moreover, different species of trees require different afforestation techniques and processes. MHP knew that the odds of being able to regrow such a large forest area from zero were next to none.
Nevertheless, in 2012, one man was sent from Marubeni to the forest site in Indonesia. His purpose was to patrol the woods and collect information, tackling new problems as they arose. Since then, 11 Marubeni expats have spent tireless hours laboring in the forest with the local staff.

“MHP is still a long ways away from our ideal image. At the moment, I have more of a sense of duty than a feeling of fulfilment – I’m just focusing on the task at hand.”

“I think that if you actually go to the work sites yourself, you’ll always find something to fix or something that needs fixing. So, I think that we have to always be looking to improve the plantation in our daily pursuit of quality and quantity.”

From the methods for seed growth and the tree spacing, to the amount and placement of fertilizer and the disposal of weeds, forests require substantial maintenance; make a mistake in any one of these areas, and the trees will die. For 5 years, the men on the ground slowly and steadily concentrated on each aspect of the afforestation process, gradually building on their progress. Finally, the fruit of their hard work resulted in MHP’s first shipment of Eucalyptus Perita trees last year.

“My current mission is for my generation to lead this company in the right direction through our hard work, sweating in the back country.”

It is now 2018. Having overcome the initial period of hardship, the future looks bright for the revival of MHP and TEL.

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in August 2017.