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Asian paper giant agrees to stop cutting Indonesia’s natural rain forests

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Asia Pulp & Paper, the third-largest pulp and paper company in the world, announced Tuesday that it is halting operations in Indonesia’s natural rain forests, a victory for advocates who have been negotiating with the company for a year.

The Singapore-based company, which controls logging concessions spanning nearly 6.4 million acres in Indonesia, said it also has agreed to protect forested peatland, which stores massive amounts of carbon, and to work with indigenous communities to protect their native land.

APP, a member of the Sinar Mas Group, estimates that 20 percent of its Indonesian wood comes from native rain forests. The company said it has commissioned assessments to determine what areas in its concessions are natural forests, as opposed to areas that have been cleared.

As of Friday, the firm had pulled hundreds of excavators out of the forest and had hired a European nonprofit group called the Forest Trust, which negotiated the agreement, to independently monitor its operations.

Aida Greenbury, the firm’s managing director for sustainability, said that a coalition of environmentalists, customers and some of the firm’s employees had pushed for an end to native forest logging.

“We heard very loud and clear what they want us to do,” she said. “It is an investment for the sustainability of our business, not only an investment in the environment and the social impact we’re creating.”

The move shows how activists are increasingly focused on securing environmental commitments from corporate giants rather than governments, which can be slow to enact broad policy changes.

The World Wildlife Fund, for example, has worked with Coca-Cola to conserve water and with Wal-Mart to source beef and palm oil from areas that aren’t deforested. Greenpeace has targeted toymakers, candy companies and fast-food chains for purchasing supplies from firms with poor environmental records. And just last month, McDonald’s USA announced that it will sell only fish certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Carter Roberts, who heads the WWF in the United States, noted that 500 companies control 70 percent of the market for the 15 commodities “that have the greatest impact on the planet,” and 100 of them control 25 percent of that market.

“We target these 100 companies because we know if they change their practices, it will affect half of the markets in which they operate, and that will make a huge difference in conserving the places we care about,” Roberts said. “This is the fastest-growing part of our work, and it’s the place where we see the greatest traction.”

The Forest Trust’s executive director, Scott Poynton, who has helped broker similar no-deforestation pledges with Nestle and palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources during the past two years, said APP’s commitment sets out “a pretty clear template” that any business can follow.

APP, which produces 9 million tons of paper and pulp annually in Indonesia and operates two massive mills in Sumatra, accounts for half the country’s production. Its closest competitor, Indonesia’s Asia Pacific Resources International, also logs in natural rain forests. But its production is less than half of APP’s, so it has attracted less criticism.

Forest-clearing is responsible for the bulk of Indonesia’s emissions, making it the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter; scientists estimate that deforestation makes up 10 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas output. Sumatra lost more than a third of its forest cover from 1990 to 2010 alone, according to research published last year.

“Companies are talking about deforestation, but no one’s taking much action,” Poynton said, adding that when it comes to the annual U.N. negotiations on the subject, “every meeting comes and goes, people wring their hands and the forest goes up in smoke.”

APP came under repeated attack for logging some of Indonesia’s remaining pristine rain forests, which are home to endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans. Greenpeace and other groups persuaded several of its customers, including Staples, Mattel and Mercury Paper, based in Strasburg, Va., to stop working with the company.

Rolf Sklar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace in the United States, said he and his colleagues began a campaign in 40 countries and 12 languages to pressure APP to stop clear-cutting.

“We basically had to do what the companies did, which is become more global,” Sklar said.

At first APP and its defenders pushed back: Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) defended the right of Mercury Paper to manufacture the toilet paper Paseo with APP’s raw materials. Eventually, Mercury’s main customer, Oasis, renamed its toilet paper Fiora and said it would make it with certified sustainable fiber.

Oasis chief executive Nathan Hanson said the deforestation campaign “was a factor” in its rebranding decision, “but it wasn’t a deciding factor.”

Steven Rochlin, who advises businesses, governments and nonprofit groups as a senior partner at the D.C.-based firm IO Sustainability, said activists have become increasingly sophisticated about how to hold major brands hostage to achieve their goals.

Nestle agreed to a deforestation pledge in October after Greenpeace aired an ad in Europe showing an office worker biting into a Kit Kat bar that revealed a bloody orangutan finger; Mattel stopped using APP’s materials in its boxes in June 2011 after the group began a PR campaign in which Ken broke up with Barbie, distraught over the idea that she was engaged in rain forest destruction.

“It is now much easier to identify the pain points for business in terms of protecting their reputation, and in terms of leveraging who business is accountable to,” Rochlin said.

Still, some experts remained skeptical of APP’s commitment. Christopher Barr, executive director of the U.S-based forestry research firm Woods and Wayside International, said people should approach “what APP does with a healthy dose of skepticism. They have a history of setting sustainability targets that either get pushed back or don’t get met.”

Barr noted that the firm is seeking to build a third pulp mill in Sumatra.

When asked whether she thinks the new policy will boost the firm’s chances of getting the permit, Greenbury replied, “We hope so,” but she added that the company is doing it for broader reasons.

“It is our intention to set a new benchmark for the pulp and paper mill industry globally,” she said, adding the firm will continue to meet demand through wood it obtains from acacia and eucalyptus plantations in Indonesia as well as from China and other countries.

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