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Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest paper companies in the world, has promised to end its practice of destroying Indonesian forests to make products for Westerners. Is this a wave of change or greenwash?
Elephants, tigers and orang-utans once roamed freely in the lush forests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. But bulldozers belonging to companies like the Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) have torn out the rainforest, leaving behind scrubbed, welted earth. These tree stands have been subjected to some of the fastest deforestation activity on the planet.
The trees have been used to produce toilet paper, paper towels, napkins and facial tissue for consumers in the West.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), APP and its suppliers appear to be responsible for more deforestation in Sumatra than any other company.
"Since it began operations in 1984, APP and its affiliates are estimated to have pulped more than two million hectares (five million acres) of tropical forests in Sumatra, and recently began aggressive forest clearing in West and East Kalimantan," WWF biologist Michael Stuewe told DW in an interview.
New forest protection deal
The pulp and paper giant has now brought its bulldozers to a standstill. In a new deal, brokered by the Forest Trust, APP announced that it will end all natural forest clearing in its supply chains in Indonesia. The company has promised to only develop non-forested areas and will protect forested peatlands, which store significant amounts of carbon. It also agreed to respect the rights of indigenous peoples that live where new plantations are proposed.
In a statement, APP Managing Director for Sustainability, Aida Greenbury, wrote, "Our new Forest Conservation Policy sets us on course to be a leading world-class paper company solely based on sustainable plantation sources."
Asia Pulp and Paper's turnaround on forest protection is the direct result of a campaign carried out by environmental protection group Greenpeace. In 2011, the group presented evidence that ramin trees from the Indonesian rainforest were logged, pulped and turned into paper. Ramin trees grow on peat swamps, where Sumatran tigers hunt. It is illegal to chop them down.
Greenpeace named 11 companies with links to APP – many, including Danone, Xerox and Tchibo, suspended their contracts. In Germany, publishers were urged to join the boycott, when it was revealed that many children's books had been printed on paper from Indonesian rainforests.
"The pressure that Greenpeace made has been very effective," said Julien Troussier, director of communications at the Forest Trust, a nonprofit organisation that helps companies improve their environmental record. Troussier told DW that the boycott campaign was an important step, but it was essential to support the company as it transitioned towards more sustainable practices.
It remains to be seen if APP will be able to draw back its lost customer base. Stefan Dierks is the senior manager of corporate responsibility at German coffee roaster Tchibo. The company broke ties with APP during the boycott bid.
"APP's actions didn't suit our vision of how to make profit in an environmentally friendly way," Dierks told DW. But he acknowledged that they were taking notice of APP's move to end natural forest clearing in its supply chains.
When asked if the company would renew its relationship with APP, Dierks said Tchibo welcomed APP's decision and would be watching the company's progress.
Wave of change or greenwash?
Scientists with the Centre for International Forestry Research in Indonesia said APP has made promises about sustainable forestry in the past, while continuing to destroy peat swamp forests which held dense carbon stocks.
"We hope this time the company does what it promised," said WWF biologist Michael Stuewe. "But we urge paper buyers to wait for confirmation of the claims through independent monitoring by civil society before doing business with APP."
But Forest Trust's Troussier is more optimistic. He agreed that the company had failed to follow through on earlier promises to improve its environmental record but said forest protection specialists would be on the ground monitoring operations this time.
"The level of commitment is very different," he said. "The level of transparency is different. They have given access to data to NGOs. We are deeply embedded in their operations from plantation to factory. There are satellites monitoring the areas to make sure commitment respected. We feel this is a turning point for the company, for the forests of Indonesia and hopefully for the world."