Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Harvesting the eucalyptus

The eucalyptus planted by Advance Agro Public Company is a hybrid of the Australian species, and were developed over 25 years to best suit Thai soil and climate. The fast-growing trees can be harvested in three years compared with seven to eight years for other eucalyptus breeds.

All across the fertile farmland of Thailand, a new crop is sprouting amidst traditional ones such as rice and cassava.

Stories by TAN CHENG LI

A LINE of soaring trees fringes the plot of rice field, breaking the monotony of the green, grassy sprawl. Though not a scene typical of rural padi farms in Thailand, it nevertheless is becoming commonplace as more of such trees are sprouting up in the country’s agriculture sites.

Some 1.5 million Thai farmers are growing eucalyptus trees on empty spaces around their crops, under contract with Advance Agro Public Company, maker of the Double A brand of office paper and Thailand’s biggest pulp and paper manufacturer.

The farmers, scattered over the central plains, south, north and north-east of the country, nurture some 300 million eucalyptus trees to be used for paper-making.

In the village of Chiangtai in Chachoengsao province in eastern Thailand, farmer Patchai Kanpawa first planted eucalyptus on unused land in his 9ha rice fields four years ago and has since harvested 3,000 trees.

“It is easy to grow these trees. Apart from the occasional pruning, they need little attention. If I plant during the dry season, I need to water only when I plant the seedlings. During the wet season, I don’t even have to water them,” he says.

While Kanpawa, 67, utilises rice field embankments for his eucalyptus trees, other farmers grow them in bigger parcels of land among their plots of rice, sugarcane, cassava, corn and other crops. Such small-scale tree-farming is said to be less ecologically damaging than vast industrial tree plantations.

Kanpawa says eucalyptus cultivation has not adversely affected his rice yields. He cuts the trees when they reach a diameter of 6.5cm – the minimum for pulp production. The first 1,000 trees felled earned him 100,000 bahts (RM10,000). That drew the attention of other villagers and now, half of the 150 families in Chiangtai, about an hour’s drive from Bangkok, are cultivating eucalyptus trees.

Advance Agro senior executive vice-president Thirawit Leetavorn says by engaging farmers to plant the trees, the company need not set up industrial tree plantations, which are beset with a host of ecological and social woes.

“We avoid cutting down natural rainforests and there are no displacement of farming communities. In plantations of thousands of hectares, there is only one species of trees. This affects biodiversity and the soil of the area,” he explains.

Advance Agro processes the logs at its two pulp and two paper mills in Thatoom in Prachinburi province, east of Bangkok. Leetavorn says the company buys the logs based on world market price but does not pay less than a base of 1,200 bahts (RM120) per tonne. He says a farmer can earn 8,000 bahts (RM800) a year for every 100 trees harvested. The farmers produce more logs than Advance Agro can process, so they sell them to the pole and fibreboard industries.

To assist farmers with planting advice, Advance Agro has 500 branches nationwide. It sells the seedlings at 5 bahts (50 sen) each, but often donates them. A hybrid of the Australian eucalyptus, they were developed over 25 years to best suit Thai soil and climate. The fast-growing trees can be harvested in three years compared with seven to eight for other eucalyptus breeds.

The eucalyptus-farming scheme has proven so successful that the company contracted an additional 500,000 farmers since 2005. Some 300 schools have also joined in, growing seedlings donated by Advance Agro in school compounds and selling the trees when they mature.

Protests over pulp

But things were not always so green for eucalyptus farming and the pulp and paper industry in Thailand, which have had a troubled history. In the late 80s and through the 90s, Thai villagers and activitists marched against expanding eucalyptus plantations which have taken over natural forests, farms and settlements.

Advance Agro emerged from this tumultuous past; its parent company Soon Hua Seng Group (SHS), which started planting eucalyptus commercially in 1986, was previously mired in controversy. In 1990, over 150 employees of SHS subsidiary Suan Kitti Company were arrested for illegally logging a forest reserve in Chachoengsao province to make way for a plantation.

Suan Kitti Reforestation faced a similar charge in the neighbouring Prachinburi province. Allegations over the use of intimidation in the sale of farmland trailed Suan Kitti’s plantation programme in eastern Thailand through the 90s.

Reports say the SHS mill which came up in 1989, was originally to be the Suan Kitti Pulp Mill but was renamed Advance Agro in order to detract from the critical public sentiment towards Suan Kitti.

Green groups, including the World Rainforest Movement, claim that Advance Agro still relies on industrial tree farms for its pulp. They say while the company owns no tree farms, it sources wood from SHS subsidiary Agro Line, which gets supplies from its own extensive industrial plantations, SHS-owned plantations and farmers.

Leetavorn asserts that the company has always sourced for logs from contract farmers and “did not want to do industrial plantation because of environmental concerns.” He says the parent company of Advance Agro had tree plantations earlier on but they were for trials to find trees suitable for Thailand, and were not commercially viable for pulp and paper production.

Leetavorn says 90% of the pulp used in the company’s paper production came from logs harvested by farmers. Eucalyptus, like another fast-growing tree, acacia, produces only short fibre pulp. This is mixed with long fibre pulp (processed from temperate trees such as birch and pine) imported from New Zealand and Scandinavian forest plantations that have been certified as sustainably managed.

Advance Agro currently produces more pulp than its paper mills can handle, thus the excess is sold. Its new US$200mil (RM620mil) paper mill with a 200,000-tonne capacity that will come up in 2009 is expected to absorb the surplus pulp.

As for the use of recycled and alternative fibres, Advance Agro has not pursued this course like some other paper producers as such fibres do not produce good quality paper, says Leetavorn. He says globally, pulp is now mostly sourced from farmed trees, with Indonesia and Brazil being the major producers.

Despite concerns over deforestation and the ecological hazards posed by commercial tree plantations as well as pulp and paper mills, global demand for paper continues to soar, particularly in China, eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific. Each Malaysian and Thai now consumes 3kg of paper annually, compared with 400g for a Chinese, 6kg for a Singaporean, and 80kg for an American.

The growing demand for pulp compels the industry to look for sustainable options and fortunately, there is a source of raw material that meets this criterion – trees grown by farmers.

Paper trail

1.Logs are cut to even-sized wood chips.

2. Wood chips are cooked with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) at high temperature to separate lignin (the natural glue which holds wood fibres together) from cellulose in the pulp. A liquid residue, black liquor, is recovered to retrieve used chemicals and burned to generate steam and power.

3. Unbleached pulp is refined in a series of washers and screens.

4. Pulp is bleached in a sequence of treatments lasting as long as 15 hours. The Elemental Chlorine Free bleaching process uses oxygen, chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide to whiten the pulp.

5. Bleached pulp is blended with various additives and chemicals.

i. Fillers and coatings: Clay, calcium carbonate (chalk) and titanium oxide are added to enhance paper opacity, whiteness and smoothness.

ii. Sizing agents: Starch, resin, alum, gelatine or latex are used to increase water repellence, prevent ink blotting and reduce fibre dust, which can clog printing machinery.

iii. Biocides: To prevent bacterial growth in the pulp and finished paper products.

6. Blended wet pulp is drained through a moving belt of woven nylon mesh to form thick mats. Next, a series of presses remove more water and thins the sheets. Steam-heated dryers dry the sheets.

7. The paper sheets are rolled into bales, sprayed with starch to obtain a smooth, glossy surface and then passed through a calender to be scrubbed into even thickness.

8. Jumbo reels of white paper are cut to size.

A cleaner paper industry

Eucalyptus logs are trucked to the chipping site at the Advance Agro pulp and paper mill in Thatoom, Prachinburi province in Thailand. The logs are cut into even-sized chips before they are cooked into a pulp.

THERE is good reason why calls to reduce, reuse and recycle paper resonate so loudly: that sheet of super white office paper reaches your table only with a trail of environmental woes behind it.

Paper production starts wreaking ecological harm right from the source of the raw material itself: trees. Natural forests have been cleared to obtain wood pulp and to make way for vast industrial tree plantations. Such monoculture farms suck the land dry and severely impact biodiversity, land rights and livelihoods.

Pulp and paper mills are among the most polluting industrial plants. At the mill, chipped wood undergoes a lengthy process to be broken down into pulp, bleached, pressed and dried to form jumbo reels of smooth, white paper. The whole production devours lots of water, energy and chemicals, and leaves behind lots of noxious effluent.

Criticisms against the industry now sees newer pulp and paper mills adopting new and cleaner technology.

Advance Agro Public Company’s integrated facility in Thatoom in Prachinburi province, about 120km from Bangkok, houses two pulp mills, two paper mills, a power plant and a seedling nursery within 104ha. The facility started production in 1995 and now produces 600,000 tonnes of pulp and a similar amount of paper annually.

Senior executive vice-president Thirawit Leetavorn says the plant relies on machineries that run on less polluting chemicals and water. He says the pulp bleaching process uses Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) methods and thus is acid- and chlorine-free.

(Fears over emissions of toxic chloroform, dioxin and furan have prompted newer mills to use Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) and ECF processes.)

To avoid straining local water supplies, the company built a 192ha reservoir to harvest rainwater. Water stored during rainy spells, as much as 30 million cu m, is enough to last the facility until the next rainy season. To conserve water at the mills, the pulp washing plant uses wash presses with high pressure to squeeze out water from the wet pulp, which has to undergo several rounds of washing to separate cellulose fibres from dissolved materials and chemicals.

Foul mill effluent is treated to comply with anti-pollution rules, then used to irrigate surrounding tree farms. Leetavorn says an online monitoring system allows the Thai environmental agency to know measurements of pollutants at all times.

Like most new pulp and paper mills in Asia, the Advance Agro facility is energy-independent. Bark and lignin wastes as well as black liquor, a residue of pulp-processing, are burned to generate electricity. This saves the equivalent of 340 million litres of diesel oil annually. Of the 100MW generated annually, 70MW is used to power the facility and the rest is sold to the utility.

Leetavorn points out that the environmental harm caused by different paper-making techniques has been largely ignored in the pricing of paper products.

“The market’s failure to fully reflect the environmental costs in the price of paper has given rise to a wide range of environmentally damaging, but ‘cost effective’ paper-making practices, such as illegal logging and unsound waste disposal.”

Stressing the industry’s needs to responsibly manage its ecological impact, he says paper must be sourced from environmentally sustainable supplies and manufacturers must better manage their resource consumption and carbon emissions.

“Consumers too have a role to play,” he adds, “by understanding where paper comes from and exercising their right to choose paper products which do not adversely impact the environment.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cops grilled in Kalimantan illegal logging

Jakarta, Indonesia - More than a dozen senior police officers have been grilled for their alleged roles in illegal logging in West Kalimantan province on the Indonesian portion of Borneo island, local media reports said Wednesday.

National police chief General Sutanto had vowed to take legal action against any police officer involved in illegal logging or log smuggling in the country.

"We want to deal with illegal logging activities conclusively. Whoever is suspected to be involved will be investigated," the state-run Antara news agency quoted Sutanto as saying.

At least 14 police officers in West Kalimantan province were being held at the national police headquarters in Jakarta for questioning, he said.

"The investigations are being conducted by the National Police general supervisory inspector," Sutanto said, adding that they were questioned on suspicion of having colluded with log smugglers in West Kalimantan.

Sutanto, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, said he supported the forestry ministry's plan to cooperate with neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia, in an attempt to stop log smuggling from the country.

West Kalimantan police last month named 26 people as suspects in illegal logging cases, including 14 boat crew members, six officers of the Ketapang transportation service, eight illegal log owners - with two of them still at large - and one mediator between illegal logging financiers and loggers.

© Borneo Bulletin (Brunei)


$26.8 million to lead global fight against deadly wheat plague

Black stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis.

Gates Foundation awards Cornell $26.8 million
to lead global fight against deadly wheat plague

Cornell has been awarded a $26.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a broad-based global partnership to combat stem rust, a deadly wheat disease that poses a serious threat to global food security.

Wheat, which is one of the world's primary food staples, accounts for about 30 percent of the world's production of grain crops. Scientists estimate that 90 percent of all wheat varieties planted around the globe are susceptible to the virulent new wheat stem rust type, known as Ug99. More than 50 million small-scale farmers in India rely on wheat for their food and income; other vulnerable regions include Pakistan, East Africa, China, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Gates Foundation-funded partnership, the new Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, will bring together 15 institutions to combat the emergence of deadly new variants of stem rust that can spread quickly, reducing healthy wheat to broken, shriveled stems. The partners will focus on developing improved rust-resistant wheat varieties to protect resource-poor farmers as well as consumers from catastrophic crop losses.

Ronnie Coffman, a Cornell professor of plant breeding who is director of international programs at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, announced the grant at a meeting at wheat research facilities in northwest Mexico used by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Coffman will direct the consortium of global partners while Rick Ward, previously a wheat breeder with CIMMYT and Michigan State University, has been hired by Cornell as the project coordinator.

"The rust pathogens recognize no political boundaries, and their spores need no passport to travel thousands of miles in the jet streams. Containing these deadly enemies of the wheat crop requires alert and active scientists, strong international research networks and effective seed supply programs," said Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug, who developed the "green revolution" wheats beginning in the 1940s and is credited with bringing radical change to world agriculture and saving hundreds of millions of lives.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

King of the road

This lorry is being used for transporting logs to the log pond.

Log Pond

Logs are temporarily stocked here before being transported by river.