A Timber Tycoon’s Trophies

Why is one of Asia’s most unscrupulous foresters winning environmental awards?


If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Indonesian timber tycoon Mohamad “Bob” Hasan was a champion of the environment. He’s received at least three awards from U.S. groups for his contributions to the environment in the past year alone.

In April, Hasan’s timber conglomerate, the Kalimanis Group, was recognized by Clinton administration officials for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Then the dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Forest Resources named Hasan an honorary professor at the August ribbon-cutting of his new pulp and paper mill in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. “It is rare that a person emerges to have the potential of teaching the entire world,” Dean Larry Tombaugh said.

Hasan also won the “Harry A. Merlo Award” for environmental achievements from the Oregon-based World Forestry Center. “In Indonesia, you are not allowed to own the forest — the forest is owned by the government and its people,” Hasan modestly notes in a WFC video tribute to himself. “We are only given time to manage it… If we manage it on a sustainable basis, we can continue.”

World Forestry Center video celebrating Bob Hasan
(Quicktime 1.3 megs)

Bob the Pyromaniac

What is sustainable to Hasan, apparently, is anything but sustainable to forests. Hasan, who heads Indonesia’s forest industries, is the man behind the nation’s destructive slash-and-burn forestry.

The Far Eastern Economic Review says that Hasan “has been unquestionably the strongest player in setting Indonesia’s forest policies.” These policies, says Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, “have led to the liquidation of Indonesia’s forest resource base, sparked major conflicts with indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers, and, in the final analysis, set the stage for the current fires.”

In 1993, one of Hasan’s companies, PT Kalhold Utama, bulldozed and burned hundreds of acres of forested land used by a community of indigenous Dayak people for rattan and fruit production. The company — in a move documented by the World Bank — also bulldozed graves of the community’s dead.

According to Christopher Hatch of the Rainforest Action Network, Hasan’s Kalimanis Group, with timber holdings spanning 7,700 square miles in Kalimatan, is “one of the most voracious, barbaric conglomerates in the world.”

Even the Indonesian government — a corrupt operation that normally scratches Hasan’s back — has begun to criticize his companies’ practices. In September the Environmental Minister pegged three of Hasan’s companies as being among those that deliberately set the forest fires that are still raging in Indonesia.

Hasan’s responsibility, though, extends far beyond his own companies’ practices. As chairman of Apkindo, a government-sanctioned cartel that regulates $3.7 billion in annual plywood exports, he plays a major role in establishing industrywide forestry practices. On behalf of the industry, he has denied any blame for the tragic fires, and instead blames peasant farmers.

Gurmit Singh, head of the Center for Environment, Technology and Development, a Malaysian environmental organization, says farmers clearing plots with fire are responsible for 10 to 20 percent of the damage at the most.

How Does Bob Get Away With It?

Worth an estimated $1 billion, Hasan is one of Indonesia’s major industrial players. He owns interests in media, banking, and insurance corporations, and is chairman of Astra, one of the nation’s largest auto manufacturers. He is also a confidante and golfing buddy of President Suharto (Hasan also putted around at last year’s Bob Hope Classic) — a profitable relationship in a country where the president’s family and friends hold much of the wealth.

“Given the immense amount of profit accruing to companies involved in the forestry and plantation sector, there has been a lack of political will to enforce the most basic forestry regulations,” Fried says.

One environmental worker in Indonesia, fearing bodily harm, would speak about Hasan only under the condition of anonymity: “He is very powerful. He is very close to the president. He is beyond the law.”

Hasan’s Gifts

Two of Hasan’s timber operations are enjoying favorable treatment by the U.S. government. Last April, the United States Initiative on Joint Implementation (USIJI), a Clinton administration project, announced a new partnership with the two logging concessions and honored Hasan’s Kalimanis Group conglomerate at a White House ceremony. The partnership was one of 10 new projects announced by USIJI, which facilitates investment by U.S. companies into foreign-based industries working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Indonesia project, USIJI officials say, will implement “reduced impact logging” on 1,480 acres of Hasan’s timber concessions to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next 40 years, 56,400 tons of carbon will be “saved” as a result. So far, though, nothing’s been saved — a U.S. investor for the project has yet to be found. (Fifty-six thousand tons of carbon is a “miniscule amount,” notes scientist Darren Goetze of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Each year, he says, the U.S. alone emits close to 5.5 billion tons of carbon.)

Asked about the environmentally unsound practices of Hasan’s companies, USIJI Deputy Director Paul Schwengels says the USIJI isn’t supposed to look at a company’s track record — it just evaluates the proposed project for its future environmental benefits.

Says Schwengels: “We don’t necessarily say that this company — everything it does — benefits the environment…. We are asking companies to do something that benefits the environment that they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

That’s pretty much Dean Tombaugh’s explanation for bestowing an honorary professorship on Hasan at the opening of the Kiani Kertas pulp mill — the largest in Southeast Asia. “I would be the last to proclaim to be an expert about Indonesia, but it has appeared to me… the environmental future of that country is in the hands of a few major industrialists. And Mr. Hasan is one of them,” Tombaugh says.

He adds that Hasan, who made a “small gift” to North Carolina State University — somewhere in the range of $100,000 to $150,000 — is going to practice forestry no matter what, so he figured that a little award might open a dialog between the timber baron and the academic community in the West. Such a relationship might provide Hasan with an incentive to practice sustainable forestry, Tombaugh says.

In Oregon, meanwhile, Hasan’s award for his extraordinary achievements in forest stewardship from the World Forestry Center can be explained in one sentence: He sits on the board of this timber industry front group.

Leslie Weiss is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.