Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) spent years in the crosshairs of the world’s largest environmental groups over past accusations about how the company’s irresponsible forestry practices affected local communities. But APP, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, changed its tone and approach as of late.
APP had discussions with NGOs such as Greenpeace, and those talks eventually led to the company adopting a zero-deforestation policy. In turn, Greenpeace acknowledged that APP has turned a corner. And the company regularly consults with another NGO, the Forest Trust, to ensure that the zero-deforestation message is spread across its vast holdings in Indonesia and China.
But incidents still pop up that land APP in hot water with environmentalists. The reasons why, however, are nuanced when it comes to solving problems such as illegal logging or the unrestricted draining of peatlands. One problem, claims APP, are palm oil plantations adjacent to the company’s managed forests that start fires or drain peatlands, the results of which spill over into APP’s forests. Such flare-ups can also occur when local farmers burn down some forest so they can grow crops to feed their families and neighbors, and the fires spread out of control.
Nevertheless, when such an incident festers, APP is usually blamed. This is despite the fact that its efforts have gained the trust of organizations such as the United Nations, which invited APP to events surrounding last year’s COP21 climate talks. Those efforts resulted in the company becoming a signatory to the New York Declaration of Forests. From APP’s point of view, however, the company cannot just point the finger. So, it launched several projects that it says can boost sustainable development in the regions that are the foundation of the company’s supply chain.
“We’re audited and we’ve shown our commitment to zero-deforestation. But if a nearby palm oil plantation sets a fire, then what?” one APP spokesperson asked rhetorically during a meeting with a group of journalists earlier this week in Shanghai. And that is a fair argument. If APP is going through all of these efforts, only to be blamed when the actions of others cause environmental destruction, then the gut reaction of any company is going to be: What is the point?
Such distractions aside, APP insists that it is doing what it can to prevent such challenges from flaring up in the first place. Late last year, the company announced an initiative that aims to improve the economic development of over 500 villages throughout Indonesia. APP says such programs are necessary in order to show that economic development can continue sustainably while protecting Indonesia’s natural forests.
Such programs include agroforestry, which allows local citizens to grow the fruits and vegetables they need aside the company’s forests. New methods to raise livestock are also taught to those who have been in animal husbandry for generations.
The company also funded business classes to boost interest in other professions that do not lead to the clear-cutting of natural forests and create new paths for economic development. Education programs have also launched in local schools so that students have a greater understanding of how the careful management of forests can contribute to the local economy. According to APP representatives who spoke at the Shanghai meeting, such programs are an important component of its forest conservation policy, and together, these initiatives have a role in preventing the fires and illegal logging that has bedeviled the company in the past.
Some of APP’s challenges in Indonesia are structural. Unlike many developed countries, this island nation of 200 million people has a confusing land ownership registration system that ensnares businesses and citizens alike. In the U.S., for example, one goes to the local county office to register one’s ownership of property. When it comes to land titles, however, Indonesia has a system that is both cumbersome and opaque; a regional government, for example, may have assigned a concession of land to a company, while a local community council has said that land is either owned by a family or has been assigned for a different use. There have been cases where multiple concessions for an area of land have been granted to a paper company such as APP, or a palm oil grower. Meanwhile, local residents are often authorized to burn forests when they feel it is necessary.
The reality is that the Indonesian government needs to be more proactive in streamlining how it grants titles to land, instead of just wagging fingers at companies when fires blaze out of control. And of course, both business and individuals must be held accountable when it comes to tackling the problems of deforestation and environmental degradation.
To that end, APP has instituted policies it says can help the company self-regulate. One such program is the launch of a grievance protocol, which enables anyone to contact the company if they see anything that resembles a breach of the company’s rules. Since APP started its zero-deforestation policy in 2013, the company says it has had two breaches, both of which were investigated and resolved.
APP’s journey over the last few years teaches us that no industry can exist in isolation. We now have organizations that establish sustainable standards for commodities including palm oil, beef, soy and paper. But if the global business community is really going to succeed when it comes to stopping rampant deforestation while enabling more sustainable development, these industries are going to have to work far more closely together if this planet will sustain 9 billion people by 2050.
Image credit: APP China
Disclosure: APP is funding Leon Kaye’s trip to China. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.