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Phil Covington headshot

Rainforest Alliance Reviews Paper Giant's Forest Conservation Efforts

By Phil Covington

Feb. 5 marked the two-year anniversary of paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper's commitment to halt further felling of the natural rainforest in all of its 38 supplier concessions in Indonesia. This commitment was a key part of the company's Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) announced back in February 2013.

While FCP was cautiously welcomed by various environmental groups, many remained skeptical as to whether Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) would hold the line on the promises made.

Since the 2013 announcement, central to APP's efforts has been the retention of a number of third-party organizations with expertise in evaluating both the High Carbon Stock (HCS) and High Conservation Value (HCV) of  forests within its supplier concessions. And later on, the company expanded on these efforts with the formation of a peat expert team to evaluate how best to protect this fragile ecosystem found extensively throughout supplier forests. APP stated from the outset that recommendations made by these expert teams would be adopted by the company as part of ongoing and comprehensive forest management plans.

Since work on FCP began, the pulp and paper giant committed to an unprecedented level of transparency as well -- perhaps most significantly demonstrated by its invitation to have Rainforest Alliance undertake an independent evaluation of their progress. This month, Rainforest Alliance published its evaluation of the first 18 months of FCP (to August 2014). Here are the key findings.

Third-party evaluation

The good news: Rainforest Alliance found that, "APP has met its commitments to halt the cutting of natural forest for the purposes of establishing new plantation areas, stop the building of new canals in peat-lands by its suppliers and stop all transport of mixed tropical hardwood for its own pulp supply by August 31, 2013." The report also states that APP's journey to implement its ambitious commitments has required a tremendous amount of work, while confirming that building blocks are in place.

In broad terms, APP has delivered on some key, and important, actions. However, with such a major undertaking, Rainforest Alliance found that the company's overall progress to meet commitments varies, concluding that overall progress made is "moderate." The 83-page report dives down into the minutiae, and it is in the details where great complexity is revealed and where it is evident APP still has much work to do.

Here's an example: Although APP and its suppliers are no longer clearing natural forest -- and APP is no longer receiving mixed tropical hardwoods at its mills -- the report finds that areas of forest in designated HCS and HCV areas are still subjected to degradation by third parties. Activities such as illegal logging, small scale slash-and-burn by local communities, and, in a few cases, industrial-scale mechanical clearance for palm oil or mining purposes has taken place. As a result, Rainforest Alliance concludes there remains overall inadequate protection of HCS and HCV areas.

To be fair, though -- and this is where the challenges and complexities are revealed -- APP has previously said it cannot be successful by going it alone. A year ago, before this report, APP identified problems with overlapping licenses in concession areas leading to conflicting land use with other actors. At the time, the company called for wider stakeholder cooperation with businesses, government and civil society to resolve these issues. Rainforest Alliance concedes in its report that it acknowledges "huge challenges facing supplier companies in addressing unauthorized clearance of natural forest and protecting HCS and HCV areas," going on to say in the report: "The challenges include the unwillingness or inability of local authorities including governments to enforce legal requirements."

More work to be done

Still, the report does place some time pressure on APP to conclude some of the work undertaken. The report identifies that APP's suppliers are waiting for the company to issue their Integrated Sustainable Forest Management Plans (ISFMPs) "before taking significant steps to implement more definitive measures to protect HCV and HCS areas." ISFMP's in turn are dependent upon the completion of HCS and HCV assessments, and the delivery of these was delayed, and not fully completed, as of August 2014. At the time of the report, one pilot ISFMP project was underway.

The management of peat-lands is also planned to be integrated into the ISFMPs, and Rainforest Alliance finds only limited progress has been made by the peat expert team. As such, Rainforest Alliance states, "APP faces a significant timing or sequence challenge if it is to protect HCVs or HCS."

Another important area of review was the resolution of social conflicts. Rainforest Alliance says that APP has mapped social conflicts and established processes to begin resolving these conflicts. These number in the several-hundreds, with just one pilot social conflict resolution process being completed and with memorandums of understanding or action plans in place for 10 percent of the remaining. Rainforest Alliance says APP has made moderate progress in this area.

The bottom line

It would be easy to conclude that APP has failed to meet or exceed expectations, but at the same time, given the magnitude of APP's undertaking, it would be unrealistic to expect a perfect score just two years into reforming operations. A full reading of the report shows that while Rainforest Alliance identifies much more work must be done, the authenticity of APP's efforts is not called into question.

APP's managing director of sustainability, Aida Greenbury, welcomed Rainforest Alliance's evaluation, stating: "We are pleased that the Rainforest Alliance has recognized the progress we are making." But she added: "We must have the courage to continually improve as we learn lessons from implementation."

Greenpeace's reaction to the report commends it as being a fair and balanced assessment of, "just how far APP has come in delivering its policies to protect natural forests, peat lands and other high conservation values," though recognizes the important challenges APP still needs to tackle.

World Wildlife Fund, in contrast, reserves little praise for APP, stating that "not much has changed on the ground -- forests continue to disappear, peat soils continue to be drained and social conflicts remain unresolved." WWF appears to have remained APP's strongest critic since FCP was announced in 2013.

Despite these differing perspectives, the report is nonetheless a moment of truth for APP, and an opportunity for the company to build on its efforts to address the shortfalls identified. This becomes even more important because, as Mongabay.com's reaction to the evaluation highlights, there are concerns from organizations such as Woods and Waysides International. Woods & Waysides, a nonprofit based in New Jersey, is concerned that this report says nothing about how well APP will be able to meet the group's fiber supply on a sustainable basis as the company prepares to open the new OKI pulp mill in South Sumatra. Rainforest Alliance will address that in a future report, but in the meantime, APP should expect the scrutiny to intensify.

Photo credit: By Author

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Phil Covington headshot

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.

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