At the end of January, environmental science and conservation news site Mongabay, reported that Indonesian Paper giant, Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd (APRIL) had announced a new environmental policy aimed to stem criticism about its forestry practices, which continue to be deleterious to Indonesia's natural rain forests.
APRIL is Indonesia's second largest pulp and paper producer after Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), and the two account for about 80 percent of the country's total pulp and paper output. In recent months we have written extensively about APP's ongoing commitment to their forest clearing moratorium and increasing transparency under their Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) - so APRIL's announcement at face value is a welcome one; However it's also one, as Mongabay says, that has been "immediately blasted" by activist groups.
Certainly, APRIL's announcement of their Sustainable Forest Management Policy seems somewhat less definitive than the provisions made in APP's FCP announced in Feb 2013; you can read APRIL's press release here for the specifics. For example, APRIL commits that they will put, "an end to the establishment of new plantations by December 2014," which, implies (rather than expressly states) a commitment to stop natural rainforest clearing.
In contrast, APP's FCP last year took a much more categorical position, committing to a complete moratorium on any further natural forest clearing with immediate effect (January 31st, 2013), commensurate with High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments to be carried out across all supplier concessions.
Another provision in APRIL's announcement is that its mills will only take wood fibers that are sourced entirely from plantation forests by 2019. In contrast, APP made that same commitment to be effective from August 31st, 2013 - meaning that by the time APRIL makes good on this promise, APP will have been free of natural rainforest wood for six years.
APRIL's new policy details other things too. For example, the claim that they will "strive to support conservation areas equal in size to APRIL’s plantation areas." The word "strive" begging the question, is this a commitment or a look and see? They also commit to a "doubling in the size of forest restoration programs to 40,000 hectares." These are not objectionable aims but they offer no time frame or concrete action. So what do the critics say?
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) writing in response to APRIL's announcement remains skeptical that the company is heading towards true reform. They say the "commitment itself is murky, as APRIL fails to disclose the most basic information needed to understand what is being promised," and "APRIL has repeatedly failed to meet similar commitments, raising the possibility that this is simply another PR move to alleviate pressure and scrutiny from consumers and NGO’s." Indeed, Mongabay suggests the motivation of APRIL's announcement, while unclear, could be because The world Business Council on Sustainable Development warned of APRIL's expulsion just days before.
RAN also makes it clear APRIL doesn't go far enough in scope, stating that any commitments the company makes needs to apply to APRIL's sister companies and its parent company, Royal Golden Eagle International (RGE); RAN says APRIL's sustainable forest management policy fails to achieve that.
But it has to be said, similar kinds of statements were made about APP and their failure to follow through on promises made in the past, and though they still have their critics (RAN and WWF both) APP has since been able to build increasing credibility by taking measurable action. They've also brought in 3rd parties to help carry out environmental assessments, and have built a greater degree of transparency - notably engaging the Rainforest Alliance to act as a 3rd party evaluator which both WWF and RAN applaud.
So, perhaps its best to encourage APRIL to refine and improve their plan rather than slam them, because this could be a fresh start that can be improved upon too. In fact, Mongabay says WWF has "cautiously welcomed" APRIL's announcement, while the company states in its press release that WWF will be invited into its Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
In a way, this would not be a dissimilar trajectory to the one taken by APP when they released their sustainability road map a couple of years ago and were criticized for it not going far enough either. Commendably, APP brought in Greenpeace who helped them translate demands from activist groups into a workable action plan that could be implemented on the ground. Their work since builds on that and there is no sign that they plan to backtrack now.
As I wrote last month, APP has called for more cooperation with other organizations because the preservation of the rainforest requires a landscape approach spanning several concession areas of differing uses. APP has found that opportunities for improvement cannot be resolved by one company alone, so maybe this is an opportunity for collaboration on best practices? After all, we can be sure the likes of WWF, RAN and Greenpeace will keep up the pressure.
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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.