APRIL, RGE finally commit to zero deforestation

Indonesian paper company APRIL and its parent RGE group have joined the growing industry movement to tackle deforestation, with new policies that promise to end development on forest and forested peatlands.

After years of being shamed as industry laggards in tackling deforestation, Indonesian paper company Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) and its parent conglomerate, Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) group, have finally committed to zero deforestation across their supply chains. 

RGE on Tuesday unveiled a new sustainability framework which pledges that all pulp and paper companies under the group and their third-party suppliers will stop clearing natural forest until assessments to set aside land that is carbon-rich forest or has a high conservation value have been carried out.

The framework also promises that future plantation development will only take place on land that is not considered ‘High Carbon Stock’ - an industry classification that assesses the carbon contained in vegetation, soil, and biomass - so that carbon-rich areas can be conserved.

Furthermore, no development will take place on forested peatland, which are carbon-rich wetlands. Indonesia’s peatlands store an estimated 60 billion metric tonnes of carbon, and when they are drained to make way for plantations, they dry out and are vulnerable to catching fire - the root cause of the annual haze pollution that plagues Southeast Asia.

Separately, APRIL on Wednesday announced a new and improved ‘2.0’ version of its Sustainable Forest Management Policy, which incorporates these new zero-deforestation promises into the original policy that was announced in January last year.

NGOs such as Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) welcomed APRIL’s latest move as good news for Indonesia’s forests, but said they would be watching closely to ensure the pulp and paper company followed through on implementation.

This follows heavy criticism by the groups in the past year that APRIL’s old policy was weak as it allowed the company until 2019 to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain.

They also pointed out that other RGE companies were still free to carry out deforestation and that the lack of a High Carbon Stock approach in the policy meant that not all natural forests were protected.

The company’s new policy has put a halt to deforestation immediately. The firm also pledged to work with international experts to improve its management of peat areas; stopped harvesting mixed hardwood which comes from rainforest trees for its mills; and enhanced its initiatives on poverty alleviation and preserving the rights of indigenous communities on its concessions.

APRIL also renewed its commitment to conserving forest and peat landscapes equal in size to the 480,000 hectares of plantation owned by APRIL and its suppliers. Some 70 per cent of this land has already been conserved through land restoration schemes. 

In an interview with Eco-Business, Praveen Singhavi, APRIL group president, said that “with this policy announcement, there should be no doubt that we are eliminating deforestation from our supply chain”.

Cautious welcome, watchful eyes

With this policy announcement, there should be no doubt that we are eliminating deforestation from our supply chain.

Praveen Singhavi, APRIL group president

Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign for Greenpeace International - which labelled APRIL and RGE ‘the greatest threat to Indonesia’s forests‘ - commended APRIL for agreeing to end its deforestation in its new policy.

“We will be watching closely to make sure that today’s announcement leads to real change on the ground,” he said

WWF Indonesia’s chief executive officer Dr Efransjah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, added that the enhanced SFMP “is APRIL’s response to long-standing calls to quit deforestation by civil society groups”. 

WWF is one of five members who sit on APRIL’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), an independent group of forestry and social experts who oversee the implementation of its sustainability policy and monitor its progress towards meeting its goals.

Others organisations represented on the panel include the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification International. 

The group’s commitment also drew praise from Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, who said that the policy showcased how the private sector, government, and civil society together could “achieve strong outcomes in sustainable forestry management”. 

The next update on the new policy’s progress would be issued by the Stakeholder Advisory Committee this November, said APRIL’s Singhavi.

“This (policy) is a major step in our 15-year sustainability journey,” he noted. “We are delivering on conservation, social and economic benefits for Indonesia, and a sustainable future for the company and our customers.”

There would certainly be a short-term cost involved in making good on these commitments, but “in the long-term interest of the business, this is the right thing to do,” Singhavi added.

Road to redemption

We commend APRIL for agreeing to end its deforestation, although we will be watching closely to make sure that today’s announcement leads to real change on the ground.

Bustar Maitar, head of Indonesia Forest Campaign, Greenpeace International

The 15-year journey Singhavi refers to has certainly not been an easy one for APRIL, which started pulp production in Indonesia in 1996. 

The pulp and paper industry, along with palm oil growers, has long been linked to forest clearance, habitat destruction, and haze-causing forest fires in Indonesia, which now has the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

Many paper and palm oil majors in these sectors have in the last four years introduced policies to break the link between their businesses and deforestation.

On its part, APRIL cites milestones such as the pioneering of a system to track the chain of custody of timber 15 years ago, which would ensure no illegal wood entered its mills; a voluntary commitment in 2005 to protect land with a high conservation value, a 2013 initiative to restore degraded land; and the launch of its inaugural sustainability policy last year, as examples of its sustainability efforts.

But despite these measures, APRIL has drawn the ire of numerous green groups and sustainability organisations.

In 2013, APRIL had a falling out with the Forest Stewardship Council, a certification body for paper from responsibly sourced timber. FSC accused APRIL of deforestation and said it had banned APRIL from using its logo on its products, while APRIL maintained it had voluntarily withdrawn from the body. 

A few months later, sustainable business non-profit World Business Council for Sustainable Development last January suspended the company from its Forest Solution Group for non-compliance with its forest management and fibre procurement guidelines. 

In February, Spanish bank Santander said it would no longer fund the company until it “addressed its involvement with deforestation”.

With its operations now covered by a zero-deforestation policy, APRIL is keen on gaining re-entry into the WBCSD working group on sustainable forestry, said Singhavi. 

He was more circumspect about pursuing FSC certification again, saying a key point of difference was an FSC rule which says companies that belong to a group which has converted more than 10,000 ha of their concessions to plantations within the past five years are not eligible for certification.

“We will have to see how it works out in the Indonesian context,” he said. 

Now that there is growing support from the business community in Indonesia for a development model based on forest protection, it is time for the government, led by President Joko Widodo, to do its part in enforcing legislation to bring an end to deforestation, said Greenpeace’s Maitar.

“Even though Indonesia’s biggest pulpwood and palm oil companies are moving away from deforestation, the destruction on the ground continues,” he noted.

“The government must now act to reform the forest sector so it works for people and the environment.”

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