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How global forest-destroyers are turning over a new leaf

Indonesia is the world’s biggest destroyer of forests and four multinational corporations — APP, APRIL, Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources — have been responsible for much of it. Until recently these mega-corporations…

Changing corporate attitudes are giving orangutans and other endangered species in Indonesia’s rainforests more hope of survival. Flickr/Austronesian Expeditions

Indonesia is the world’s biggest destroyer of forests and four multinational corporations — APP, APRIL, Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources — have been responsible for much of it. Until recently these mega-corporations were considered environmental pariahs, but suddenly things seem to be changing, with all four proclaiming “no deforestation” policies. What gives?

A corporate revolution?

APP and APRIL are giant paper-pulp corporations. Collectively, they’ve cleared several million hectares of native Indonesian rainforest and other lands to grow fast-growing pulpwoods, turning the original rainforest into pulp in the process.

Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources are the world’s two biggest producers of palm oil — a key driver of forest destruction across the tropics, especially in southeast Asia.

Rainforest timbers stockpiled outside an APRIL pulp-processing plant in Sumatra, Indonesia. William Laurance

Golden Agri Resources led the way, announcing a no-deforestation policy in 2011. Under growing pressure, its sister company APP (Asia Pulp & Paper) followed suit early last year.

APP’s metamorphosis was especially stunning. For years, APP had thumbed its nose at critics while bulldozing ever more forest. This was easy for it to do because APP is largely a privately held corporation and because countries such as China and India — which generally don’t fuss too much about the environment — snapped up much of its pulp and paper products.

But gradually, the tide turned against APP. Its critics mounted, its reputation turned increasingly toxic, and it began to lose more and more market share. By this point, it had cleared vast expanses of native forest for plantations, and so had less need for more forest clearing.

Market pressure to change

So APP announced a radical change: a moratorium on forest clearing until all its lands could be systematically assessed, and then no further clearing of native rainforest or carbon-rich peatlands. In addition, it pledged to introduce safeguards for the rights of local and indigenous communities and to be far more transparent.

Initially, plenty of observers - myself included — were skeptical of APP. But, so far APP seems to be passing muster. Its efforts are not perfect, but forest clearing has fallen sharply and it is unquestionably being more open and forthcoming.

Asia Pulp & Paper now has a ‘zero deforestation’ policy.

Oil-palm giant Wilmar saw the light next. Its no-deforestation policy was announced just in December last year, so it’s too early to say much yet. It claims it will immediately halt clearing of all forests and peatlands, and will not buy palm oil from anyone who does. Wilmar’s global holdings are so vast that it will take time to implement its new policy and assess its benefits.

Last off the cab rank was APRIL, or Asia Pacific Resources International Limited. APRIL’s policy was announced just a fortnight ago, on January 28, in what is widely being seen as an attempt to steal the thunder from APP, its longtime competitor, in the week before the one-year anniversary of APP’s original no-deforestation pledge.

What are we to think about APRIL? On the one hand, APRIL has sought to go one better than APP by promising significant ecological restoration, initially to 20,000 hectares of native peatland in a key area of Sumatra, in addition to its other promises.

On the other hand, a close reading of its policies reveals that APRIL will still fell some native forests through 2014. Beyond this, it can continue to process rainforest trees and pulp from other suppliers until 2019. In six years, a lot of forest can fall before the bulldozers and chainsaws. And to make things worse, APRIL’s new sustainability commitments won’t be applied to other pulp-producing companies ultimately owned by the same family business.

For these reasons, APRIL’s new policy clearly falls behind those of the other three big corporations.

Clearing of Sumatran rainforest for an APRIL wood-pulp plantation. William Laurance

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a global group of 200 major companies committed to sustainable practices, has placed APRIL on probation because of its deforestation practices. Having seen the fine print, WWF, which initially supported APRIL’s new policy, now seems to be rapidly backpedalling.

What’s the good news?

Despite those significant reservations about APRIL, all of these new policies still seem like a dramatic about-face for some of the world’s biggest forest-felling corporations.

Even if we’re dubious about their motives, their initiatives could represent an important wave of corporate realpolitik in our increasingly eco-conscious world. As such, they might become models for other natural resource-exploiting companies and business sectors internationally. Beyond this, the four corporations have large land interests globally, so one can’t ignore the potential upside of their new policies alone.

Forest clearing for an APRIL wood-pulp plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. William Laurance

Yet few doubt that there is still much to be done. APRIL, in particular, must raise its game. Too much evidence suggests its current approach is intended to muddy the waters and make its longstanding competitor APP seem less progressive.

And in the interests of full disclosure, I need to point out one of my PhD students attempted three years ago to conduct research with APRIL. I toured their wood-pulp operations in central Sumatra, Indonesia, and later criticised their deforestation policies on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent program.

APRIL demanded that I cease criticising them and sign a strict confidentiality agreement. I refused, and in response they effectively tossed out my PhD student, right in the midst of her doctoral research. As a result I hold little affection for APRIL. But I’d like to think I’m open-minded enough to give them credit if they make a genuine effort to turn over a new leaf.

At the end of the day, one has to see the actions of these mega-corporations in a hopeful light. Indonesia’s rainforests are among the biologically richest on Earth and sustain myriad endangered species, including orangutans and tigers.

Thanks to public pressure, changing ledger sheets and the shifting attitudes of some corporate bigwigs, things finally appear to be improving. If we can sustain and build on these changes, those tigers, orangutans and countless species will have a better shot at long-term survival than they did before.

Join the conversation

39 Comments sorted by

  1. Jim Inglis

    retired

    Thanks Bill for this tiny bit of light. We can only hope.

    For many of the people and animals of course, it will be too late:

    "We used to get resin, wood, timber, fuel from the forest. Now we have no option but to work for the palm oil company. The company beat us. The fire was deliberate. This forest was everything for us. We used it as our supermarket, building store, chemist shop and fuel supplier for generations of people. Now we must put plastic on our roofs," said one man from the village of Bayesjaya who also asked not to be named."

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  2. Edwin Flynn

    I am a early retired executive at Worked in Local Government, Education and Financial Services Industries

    Thank you for this article it really shines a little light on the pathway to a cultural change in the way business is done in Indonesia and SE Asia generally.

    I recall a comment made by a Indonesian student, who lived with me for a time while attending school in Australia. He came from a very well connected family in Indonesia. When discussing corruption in politics and the importance of not only curbing corruption but also of sustainable business practices the then boy stated quite flatly…

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  3. Cat Mack

    logged in via Facebook

    A very interesting story. The toxic nature of these companies has been pretty well documented - perhaps what is less well known is that Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP) is also engaged in the most vicious and damaging form of environment destruction right here in Victoria; clear felling (aka bulldozing) thousands of acres of native forest this also done for pulp production. I encourage everyone who is concerned about native forests to lend their weight and concern to changing the attitude to HVP as well.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Cat Mack

      Hancock - thats rinehart yeah? if it is then I do not expect the women who funded climate denial campaigns and rallies to listen to anything other than money money money money and cake

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    2. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Michael Shand

      "Hancock - thats rinehart yeah?"

      Give us a break, Michael.

      "The Hancock Timber Resource Group (HTRG), based in Boston, acts as overseeing manager on behalf of investors. HTRG executives also represent US investors on the HVP board."

      http://www.hvp.com.au/about

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Give you a break? I have commented to you on this topic or article yet so I'm not sure asking for a break makes any sense, but thanks for clarifying that HVP is not a rinehart enterprise, appreciate it

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    4. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    5. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Cat Mack

      Sadly, I've been expecting this article to spark some irrational extrapolation of what happens in Indonesia to the Australian context.

      HVP Plantations (as the name suggests) manages plantations, not native forests. They purchased the formerly state-owned plantation estate which is mostly Radiata Pine, with some eucalypt plantations in Gippsland that were originally established by the Govt in the 1960, and by Australian Paper more recently.

      Yes, they periodically clearfall these plantations…

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    6. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    7. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    8. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      More distortion from the forest industries chief cheerleader Mr Poynter who would have us believe if a South Gippsland forest is logged, what grows back is a plantation. Whilst significant areas are undoubtedly plantation, to apply the broadbrush label of plantation to the huge area involved is either ignorant or deceptive. The fact that the ground flora is intact in many of these areas is confirmation that whilst a proportion of the original canopy trees may have been logged, much of this area is…

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    9. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I'm not sure plantation timber would eliminate forest eco-activism mark. It is still incumbent on the company to ensure cruelty does not take place. I'm sure proper investigation is still needed when companies do not seem to have the expertise to ensure whether large numbers of koalas reside within a plantation, and continue to behave like 'cow-boys', despite dead and injured Koalas littering the ground.
      http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2013/s3878776.htm

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    10. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Cat Mack

      Exactly. Australia's happy go lucky destruction of our habitat is every bit as bad as countries like Indonesia and Brazil. Unfortunately we don't have animals like the orang utans or tigers which people with money can be lured to complain about.

      What's the betting that Gunns revamped licence to destroy untold hectares of Tasmanian wilderness will get the carte blanche treatment from the Tony Abbott led coalition?

      Nothing like felling all the native timber then setting it alight with chemicals to kill a whole lot of cute native animals. We are such a caring country. Balls!

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    11. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris

      As I have said to you on previous occassions, I am not employed as a spokesman for the 'forest industries' as you imply but am a forester with around 35-years experience in Vic and Tas who acts in a voluntary capacity as an occasional spokesperson for the Institute of Foresters of Australia, and as on this occassion, also makes comment on sites such as this off my own bat in response to misconceptions about forestry.

      Back to your comment ...... you seem to be somewhat confused about…

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    12. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Venise

      Perhaps instead of engaging in poetic licence, you should check sopme facts. Gunns proposed pulpmill which you are referring to is one that uses a plantation resource, so if it is ever built it is not about to "destroy untold hectares of Tasmanian wilderness" as you claim.

      Perhaps you should go to Indonesia or Brazil before you compare them with Australia. For example, Brazil has for many years deforested several million hectares per year (that is permanently removed the native forest for another use). Australian forestry, whereby logged areas are then regenerated is neither deforestation, nor a proportionally significant forest use given that around 95% of Australian forests and woodlands are not used for this pupose.

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    13. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark, FSC certification is in part based on the assumption all of the forests are plantation, a bureaucratic creation by the Kennett govt which saw some forests reclassified as plantations overnight against Land Conservation Council recommendations at the time. The history of the area is that by the 1960’s, a large proportion of the land had been bought back by the Government and converted to plantation, but numerous pockets of regenerated native vegetation of mature age remained. Rainforest gullies…

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    14. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris, many care, in reality the article above is depressingly familiar. Protest, name-calling and disagreement by those representing Australian Foresters does not represent the industry as a whole. As the Tasmanian Forestry Industry has found out, it is better to work with government, green groups, and environment and ecology experts to achieve agreement. And honour that agreement. I'm hopeful more of the same can be achieved in Asia, as well as Australia. I'm also sure that whether forested regrowth in Australia is deemed to be plantation or not, this is not a point which matters to critters who like to live. And viability of many species in Australia is not something which can keep being ignored. We have a disgusting extinction rate , and in this respect we can not pretend, there are no similarities to other parts of the world.

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    15. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Agree Alice. The only future for the timber industry everywhere is in actual plantations not remnant vegetation.

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    16. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris

      I don't disagree with you that there are gullies with rainforest and other native flora within the broader plantation area, but you seem to assume that this remnant vegetation (which wasn't cleared by the original settlers) is now being harvested when clearly it is not even considered to be part of the harvestable plantation area.

      There is a Govt Code of Forest Practice that prohibits operations in waterways with remnant vegetation, and where rainforest occurs, it applies additionally…

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    17. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Now come on Alice - please detail where I have engaged in name calling. As for protest and disagreement by Australian foresters, please explain why we shouldn't disagree with wrongheaded misconceptions being promoted about what we do - this our career being trashed often by people with little understanding of what occurs in forests and the rules and regulations that govern it.

      I'm pretty sure if I said you were a bad "sole parent" you'd come out swinging - and I'd expect you to. Meanwhile you…

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    18. Alastair Leith

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      "wrongheaded misconceptions being promoted about what we do "

      It's the words and actions of foresters that have most informed my views about foresters.

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    19. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark, what I am saying is if the original Kennett reclassification of the forest from regenerating native forest to plantation was wrong as highlighted by the LCC at the time, then flogging the forests via 28 year rotations is also wrong. The FSC audits are on the assumption the forests are plantation. This page details the HVP damage in Strzelecki forests recorded in 2010 and notes there was no on ground FSC audit completed: http://hancockwatch.nfshost.com/docs/10june.htm
      It’s a sad situation when…

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    20. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris

      You keep saying that the Kennett Govt reclassified these areas contrary to the LCC at the time. However, I have the LCC South Gippsland Area District 2 Report (1980) here in front of me. The section on "Reforestation" (p.220) details the history of reforestation of abandoned farmland stretching back to the 1930s by both the Forests Commission and APM.

      Reforestation of cleared farmland is achieved by planting - hence these areas are plantation. The report even contains a 1979 aerial photo…

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    21. Cat Mack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Yes indeed this is Hancock Timber Resources - I believe that they are in fact a sub of a US insurance group - sure as hell not foresters!

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    22. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Deforestation and biodiversity are linked by an industrial disregard for the latter. Mark, as a self-proclaimed spokesperson for foresters you are an activist for the industry. When having a debate about the ethical responsibilities of this industry and its practices if you already know all the answers to the issues in Australia, and refer to those who care about biodiversity in Indonesia and Australia as irrational, extremists, being misconceived , confused , being disaffected local activists with…

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    23. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Alice

      I and the forestry profession more generally have no problem with people being concerned about forests and biodiversity. In fact this is a healthy pre-occupation, up to a point.

      Where it becomes unhealthy is when well meaning concern morphs into a disregard for the facts and for those who should know about them and espouse them, and when this evolves into a determination to achieve an outcome using deciet and dishonesty as key weapons.

      This sort of behaviour has so poisoned the public…

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  4. Craig Miller

    Environmental Consultant

    Bill has highlighted one of the significant differences between APP and APRIL, i.e., how they respond to critics. APP invited the critics (e.g. Brendan May of the Robertsbridge Group, and Greenpeace) to help them transition to economically viable sustainable production and forest management. They weren't always this way, but the change implies a commitment to sustainability, rather than greenwashing.

    But there is hope for APRIL, given where APP were.

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  5. Areti Devetzidis

    PhD Candidate

    Thanks bill for such an ifomative article. There is a ray of hope here but we need to see how thing pan out over time. I wish to raise a small matter but which is nevertheless important to me. I found it almost impossible to buy products that do not contain palm oil. It make me fee bad to use palm oil containing products. Any suggestions?

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    1. Alastair Leith

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Areti Devetzidis

      If you are looking for cleaning products as far as I'm aware trinature (google it) are plant-based but free of palm oil. As for foods, don't eat packaged foods containing palm oil. Eat fresh food. Not so hard I do it.

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  6. Mike Zampa

    Director Corporate Communications

    APRIL is helping to reforest Indonesia, not destroy forests, as the author alleges. We protect 250,000 hectares of High Conservation Value Forest. We are restoring 20,000 hectares of damaged forests with commitments to restore an additional 20,000 hectares. We annually plant 150 million trees to renew and improve the productivity of degraded land that is licensed to us by the government. The APRIL Sustainable Forest Management Policy commits the company to forest preservation and restoration. We have created a Stakeholder Advisory Committee of independent forest experts to ensure that the commitments are met in a transparent manner.

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    1. Craig Miller

      Environmental Consultant

      In reply to Mike Zampa

      Then kudos if that is verifiably so. The history of Indonesian "logging" companies gives cause to be skeptical until the evidence shows otherwise.

      Transparency (and recognising the utility of criticism) is a critical aspect of any transition to an environmentally sustainable business model.

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  7. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Heh.

    "Even if we’re dubious about their motives."

    Quite so.

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  8. Max Bourke AM
    Max Bourke AM is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Thinker

    I think there might be something more important. I was in Singapore during the last great 'smog event' (I go there a lot and have many friends Singaporean and expat there); it reached over 450ppm I believe. It was truly appalling and what was interesting had everyone seething with anger, AND especially when the issue of the ownership of many of those creating this problem was discussed. Of course it was widely known, but I sensed that this time, even at the highest level of government there was a feeling that this had to stop. So as it often is, in Singapore, words behind closed doors with powerful people could have significantly added to the pressure to do something.

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  9. John Rutherford

    Worker

    I suspect that they have enough land destroyed already and so want to appease their critics

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  10. Simon Day

    Environmental Business student

    We've been researching the effects of peer pressure versus NGO pressure to drive greener policies in the extractive industries. The GAR/APP/Wilmar/APRIL dynamic could have been a great example to monitor how peer pressure works. However, there are still some NGOs attacking the first movers (like GAR and APP), and this is reducing peer pressure on those that might follow. I think we can compare Wilmar's commitment to GAR's, but I think we cannot compare APRIL's to APP's. APRIL's does not apply to all of its operations and has a long delay built in. I suspect APRIL is not feeling the pressure of APP's success. I think it might just be responding to WBCSD's reprimand. I wouldn't say APRIL is the "last cab off the rank," but "still on the rank." The NGOs are not harnessing the power of peer pressure. They are reducing it with their disunity. Peer pressure would be a far more powerful tool to drive change than their usual methods, but some of them just can't change.

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