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Pages

Battling Deforestation In Indonesia, One Firm At A Time

May 31, 2013
Originally published on May 31, 2013 8:57 pm

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a backhoe stacks freshly cut trees to be made into pulp and paper. Asia Pulp and Paper, or APP, is Indonesia's largest papermaker, and the company and its suppliers operate vast plantations of acacia trees here that have transformed the local landscape.

APP has sold billions of dollars' worth of paper products to Staples, Disney and other big U.S. corporations. But environmental groups have accused APP of causing deforestation, destroying the habitat of Sumatran tigers and orangutans, and trampling on the rights of forest dwellers.

Asril Amran is the head of a nearby village. He says that the plantations have ruined the local environment.

"In the past we could go into the forest and catch deer. We could look for birds," he recalls. "But now, there is nothing, as you can see. No animal can live in the acacia forest. We cannot shelter in its shade. It's hot. It's a greedy tree — it uses up a lot of water."

The Rainforest Action Network says that APP has turned an area of rain forests the size of Massachusetts into pulpwood plantations. It estimates that by cutting down forests and burning peat land, APP spewed the equivalent of 67 million to 86 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2006. That would rank APP's emissions ahead of 165 countries, as measured by those countries' emissions as measured in 2006.

Two years ago, the environmental group Greenpeace began targeting APP's biggest customers.

They protested at the Los Angeles headquarters of Mattel, makers of the Barbie doll. In this campaign video, Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, learns that Barbie's packaging is causing deforestation.

In response, Ken dumps her. Barbie sits on her couch in a huff, wearing her Day-Glo spandex.

"I'm Barbie," she says. "As long as I look good, who cares about tigers in some distant rain forest? If Mattel wants to use wood from Indonesia's rain forests to make my box, then let them do it."

The campaign and others like it worked. Companies stopped buying APP's products, and APP's profits plummeted.

APP felt the criticism was unfair. After all, they said, they were building schools and conservation programs for local communities.

APP Managing Director for Sustainability Aida Greenbury says her company and the NGOs that were criticizing it were just not talking on the same wavelength.

"We addressed climate change by trying to implement sustainable practice in our forestry, so we have tried our best to address those. But there's always something missing, as if we were talking on two different frequencies."

So the company turned to Scott Poynton, a lanky Australian who runs the Tropical Forest Trust.

Poynton told them bluntly that if they kept cutting down virgin forests, no amount of "greenwashing" was going to help them.

"I was just like: You guys are not listening. Your whole business is going down the drain; you've got customers leaving you every two seconds; you think you're doing a good job; and you've missed the point," he says.

Corporate Targets

Greenpeace and Poynton's good cop/bad cop tactics worked. In February, APP's chairman announced that his company would stop cutting down natural forests.

Poynton says that APP's managers just needed help in seeing that their business model was outdated.

"The context in which they're operating has changed, and with the questions of climate change, cutting down forests is not cool," Poynton says. "And people don't want deforestation in their products."

Environmentalists say the APP case shows the importance of big corporations in driving deforestation, and stopping it.

"Sure, consumers want stuff, they use stuff. But the corporations are the ones that determine often, or try to influence what you perceive that you need, and what you perceive are the things that you want to buy," says Lafcadio Cortesi, an activist with the Rainforest Action Network. "And so that's one of the reasons that we focus on large corporate consumers rather than individuals."

Greenpeace Indonesia activist Yuyun Indradi welcomes APP's new policy. But he says that if APP goes back on its pledge, Greenpeace will restart its campaign. He adds that APP is only the first step in a bigger fight against deforestation.

"Our target is zero deforestation in Indonesia by 2015," Indradi says. "Yes, I think it's quite ambitious. But APP's pledge helps to lighten our burden in reaching that goal."

He says Greenpeace is now trying to persuade other papermakers to follow APP's example.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's take a look at another impact on forests: paper, including the smallest items like tissue paper or the wrapper on a drinking straw can lead to the destruction of tropical forests. Environmentalists have long pressured big corporations to change their ways.

And for today's Business Bottom-Line, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta on how one of the world's biggest paper companies did decide to reverse its policy on deforestation.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Asia Pulp and Paper, or APP, is Indonesia's largest paper maker. It's sold billions of dollars worth of paper products to Staples, Disney and other big U.S. corporations. But environmental groups have accused APP of causing deforestation, destroying the habitat of Sumatran tigers and orangutans, and trampling on the rights of forest dwellers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

KUHN: On the island of Sumatra, a backhoe stacks freshly cut trees to be made into pulp and paper. APP and its suppliers operate vast plantations of acacia trees here that have transformed the local landscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROOSTER)

KUHN: Asril Amran is the head of a nearby village. He claims that the plantations have ruined the local environment.

ASRIL AMRAN: (Through Translator) In the past, we could go into the forest and catch deer. We could look for birds. But now, there is nothing, as you can see. No animal can live in the acacia forest. We cannot shelter in its shade. It's hot. It's a greedy tree. It uses up a lot of water.

KUHN: Two years ago, the environmental group Greenpeace began targeting APP's biggest customers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're here today to send a clear message to Mattel executives. The people behind me...

KUHN: They protested at the Los Angeles headquarters of Mattel, makers of the Barbie Doll. In this campaign video, Barbie's boyfriend Ken learns that Barbie's packaging is causing deforestation. That's totally un-cool, so he dumps her. Barbie sits on her couch in a huff, wearing her Day-Glo spandex.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Barbie) I'm Barbie. As long as I look good, who cares about tigers in some distant rainforest? If Mattel wants to use wood from Indonesia's rainforests to make my box, then let them do it.

KUHN: The campaign and others like it worked. Companies stopped buying APP's products, and APP's profits plummeted. APP felt the criticism was unfair. After all, they said, they were building schools and conservation programs for local communities.

Aida Greenbury is in charge of sustainability for APP. She admits they felt a bit cornered.

AIDA GREENBURY: Before, when we were attacked, we only saw headlines. Forest Criminal, Destruction of Forest. We didn't see the way out.

KUHN: So APP turned to Scott Poynton, a lanky Australian who runs the Tropical Forest Trust. Poynton told them bluntly that if they kept cutting down virgin forests, no amount of greenwashing was going to help them.

SCOTT POYNTON: I was pissed off. I was just like, you guys are not listening, your whole business is going down the drain, you've got customers leaving you every two seconds, you think you're doing a good job and you've missed the point.

KUHN: Poynton put this in a scathing report to APP. To drive home his point home, he included a poem about owning up to one's mistakes. Aida Greenbury read it.

GREENBURY: I did a lot of swearing when I read it, but...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENBURY: But it was needed.

KUHN: Greenpeace and Poynton's good cop/bad cop tactics worked. In February, APP's chairman announced that his company would stop cutting down natural forests.

Poynton says that APP's managers are not evil people, they just needed help in seeing that their business model was outdated.

POYNTON: The context in which they're operating has changed, and with questions of climate change, cutting down forests is not cool. And people don't want deforestation in their products.

KUHN: Environmentalists say the APP case shows the importance of big corporations in driving deforestation and stopping it. Lafcadio Cortesi is an activist with the Rainforest Action Network.

LAFCADIO CORTESI: Sure, consumers want stuff, they use stuff, but the corporations are the ones that determine often, or try to influence what you perceive that you need and what you perceive are the things that you want to buy. And so that's one of the reasons that we focus on large corporate consumers rather than individuals.

KUHN: Greenpeace Indonesia activist Yuyun Indradi welcomes APP's new policy. But he says that if APP goes back on its pledge, Greenpeace will restart its campaign. He adds that APP is only the first step in a bigger fight against deforestation.

YUYUN INDRADI: (Through translator) Our target is zero deforestation in Indonesia by 2015. Yes, I think that it's quite ambitious. But APP's pledge helps to lighten our burden in reaching that goal.

KUHN: He says Greenpeace is now trying to persuade other paper makers to follow APP's example.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.