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Guest Post: Metamorphosis of destructive logging companies

2014-05-07-112703_292x293_scrotSeveral multinational pulp and paper and palm oil companies have recently declared “zero deforestation policies”. In this guest post, Peter Gerhardt asks the question, “What is a no-deforestation promise really worth?”

Gerhardt worked for 15 years with the German environmental organisation Robin Wood. He recently co-founded a new organisation, called denkhausbremen. This guest post was first posted on denkhausbremen’s website, where it is also available in German.

Last week’s issue of Der Spiegel included a report about palm oil giant Wilmar’s former subsidiary Asiatic Persada and its land grabs and abuse of human rights in Sumatra.

    Metamorphosis of destructive logging companies

    By Peter Gerhardt,, April 2014

    It sounds like a fairy tale. Multinational companies destroy forests and trample on human rights. Then, international environmental organisations come into play and transform the culprits into responsible companies within just a few months. Multinational palm oil, pulp and paper companies such as Wilmar, Golden Agri, APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Limited) or APP (Asia Pulp and Paper) have already completed the magic metamorphosis from destroyers to protectors of the Indonesian rainforest. All of these companies now sport a “zero deforestation policy”.

    Similar promises have also been made by consumer goods giants like Nestle, Unilever, Mars, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, who require palm oil as a raw material for their products.

    Greenpeace, WWF and Co. appear to have success in what Indonesian environmental groups have been struggling to achieve for years, that is persuading notorious rainforest destroyers to make improvements. The scripts of these stories all resemble each other: Initially, a large company group is forced to the negotiating table by a major campaign in North America or Europe. Negotiations are tough but usually lead to a happy end: The company publically announces it will do better and is applauded by the organisations involved in the campaign, who are proud of their achievement. The realisation of agreed targets is left to a consulting organisation, such as the Tropical Forest Trust.

    Beyond the success portrayed in press releases by the companies and NGOs concerned, critical voices can be heard: What is a no-deforestation promise really worth?

    For company groups such as APP these deals have come just at the right time. APP has taken over enough land to establish sufficient acacia plantations for its pulp production. This makes it easy for APP to join environmental organisations in their pledge against further destruction of rainforests. Also, Indonesian laws and regulations, like the logging moratorium which entered into force in 2011, have made life harder for rainforest destroyers.

    As a matter of fact APP has already completed all the dirty work: For years the company destroyed more forest on our planet than anyone. Until a few years ago APP was destroying peat rainforests on the Kampar peninsula.

    Now, APP is cashing in: The US stationery giant Staples has announced to recommence business with this Indonesian company. Staples had stopped its cooperation with APP in 2008 due to APP’s criminal environmental behaviour.

    The palm oil company Wilmar, too, claims that no forests are destroyed for its production. This claim has been backed up by environmental organisations since 2013. To maintain an unblemished green image problematic subsidiaries are simply sold, for example PT Asiatic Persada. When one of the land conflicts with the local population was becoming more and more intense, Asiatic Persada was sold within the Sitorus family to the Ganda Group, which is managed by the brother of Wilmar co-founder Martua Sitorus. On paper, Wilmar is no longer responsible for that company even though, according to the Indonesian NGO Perkumpulan Hijau, Wilmar still uses Asiatic Persada as a raw materials supplier. The population is now suppressed more brutally than ever. Apart from that, Wilmar has also started establishing palm oil plantations in a national park in Nigeria.

    The management of APRIL went even further. In anticipation of obligations the pulp giant presented a sustainability strategy in January 2014, just ahead of an imminent international eco campaign. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee installed by APRIL to monitor the sustainability strategy also comprises the WWF. This is particularly remarkable as the same environmental organisation already got ripped off in deals with APRIL in 2005. APRIL simply ignored the agreements and kept producing paper from tropical forests. After a few years, the WWF was exasperated and gave up.

    Further questions remain unanswered: Could this be a new type of colonialism, NGO-colonialism? Can the WWF, Greenpeace and other international environmental activists still be considered legitimate when making agreements with notorious environmental criminals in Indonesia? Did they actually consult the local population affected by the land claim conflicts with Wilmar, APP, April and Co.? What about local communities right to “Free and Prior Informed Consent”?

    An expansion stop is certainly not mentioned in any of the companies’ green promises, even though this has always been a key requirement for many Indonesian NGOs when negotiating with their national pulp and palm oil industry. The danger is that other companies might take over the destruction of Indonesia’s primary forests in the future.

    It seems that the large environmental organisations are trapped in their own campaigns logic. They are trying to keep donors in the industrial countries interested by means of apparent success stories; rainforest and orang-utans have proven to be particularly popular. This is directly matched by the companies’ eco campaigns and green policies with headlines such as “No deforestation” and “Tiger-free ice cream”. Human rights or land rights conflicts no longer play a significant part.

    Environmental organisations competing for success and brand awareness have even created the paradox situation of hindering each other: One NGO applauds its ”partner” company’s new green policy while another NGO would never skip the chance to point out the downside of this partnership.

    Couldn’t we achieve more in the long term if all this self-centredness was left behind and the international community supported the many Indonesian NGOs and local communities in their actions? They could be strengthened in their role as true advocates of human rights, democratisation and environmental protection and make sure that the land rights of forest dwellers do not only exist on paper. Naturally, this would not be as spectacular as senior level agreements with multi-national companies.

    In addition, the role of certifiers, inspectors and consulting organisations should be assessed. All of these service providers play a decisive role in implementing eco deals. They operate under names like Pro Forest, Rainforest Alliance or Tropical Forest Trust, and call themselves independent inspectors or consultants. Can they actually be trusted to be independent considering they are paid for their work by the companies they inspect? There is no shortage of examples of so-called independent inspectors in Indonesia producing “favourable” reports. Who says that this is going to change? Why should it?

    Who exactly is going to ask companies like APP to accept responsibility for the crimes they committed in the past? What about the sense of justice of the past decades’ many APP victims who can now see the same company’s business flourish, applauded by environmental organisations?

    The author of this article is aware of the many benefits of negotiating with destructive logging companies. Also, international NGOs such as Greenpeace have undoubtedly made a huge difference. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the work of not-for-profit organisations as well. This article is not intended to be scholarly but rather to contribute to a discussion.



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  1. This is a debate that needs to happen, so I am grateful to Peter for stimulating a discussion by sharing his own thoughts. One important thing Peter omits to mention is that in all cases where they have been supported by the campaigning NGOs, these zero deforestation commitments have included social commitments as well (free prior informed consent).

    But I think there are nevertheless important question marks regarding all these new commitments. I think they boil down to three key questions. Firstly, is it right for campaigning NGOs to forgive past wrongs by major corporates in exchange for promises not to repeat them in future? Secondly, will these zero deforestation promises actually be kept by the companies concerned? And thirdly, will these commitments, even if they are kept and perhaps extend to a few more major industry participants, actually make a difference in terms of broader goals (reducing deforestation and associated abuses of rights of local people)?

    In terms of the first question, I have some sympathy for the argument that if one sets too high a standard regarding past wrongdoings, no company will be able to meet it and so no company will make any commitments about the future. But how far to take this has to be considered on a case-by-case basis and in the case of APP I believe it may have been taken too far. APP had already cleared and planted almost all its timber plantation concessions when it announced its new policy, so it is arguably giving up very little in exchange for regaining access to the big buyers in Europe and the US. Given this, I believe greater efforts at restitution of past wrongs should have been a pre-requisite of any bargain with Greenpeace.

    As for the second question, it is of course too early to tell. But Greenpeace and others who are working with these companies are well aware of the need for meaningful monitoring, and for the transparency that requires, so I am reasonably hopeful that if companies broadly fail to meet their commitments this will be found out.

    The third question is perhaps the most important, and is not really addressed in Peter’s comments. My feeling is that some people are assuming that if enough big players in key industries can be persuaded to sign up to certain standards, this will encompass most of the relevant industry, so the remainder doesnt matter. But I have my doubts about that logic. Even if the big companies all commit, and abide by those commitments, so long as the government policy and enforcement in forested countries are poor, and so long as the international markets are open to the relevant commodities, existing smaller players or new market entrants to the relevant industries will happily take the place of the current giants, and do the forest clearing that they now say they will not.

    Sam Lawson
    Earthsight Investigations / Independent Researcher

  2. An important discussion and it relates to one of my concerns i.e. a green NGO, can through negative publicity bring a large corporate to promise it will within a timeframe become sustainable – as if it is vindicated. While the real problem is not dealt with at all – the corporate has created a commodity to be traded on the world wide market that is susceptible to all the international money making swings that will make for environmental and social harm e.g. Palm oil in China just now is being stockpiled due to a credit shortage. The whole system for forest and people is not dealt with at all.

  3. The reality is that if we choose to reject these no deforestation pledges altogether, it brings us back to business as usual which has shown catastrophic consequences for the natural environment and forest peoples.

    We must also understand that these no deforestation pledges should be taken at face value. Forests will continued to be cleared in no deforestation zones. The only difference will be that identified high conservation value forests will be spared and that is a good step away from business as usual

    APP recently committed to a million hectares of conservation in Indonesia which sounds amazing but may not executable on the ground as it calls for cooperation from activists, local communities but most importantly, governments. Indonesia has shown itself to be interested only in development, not conservation so I doubt they will let APP control that much “unproductive” land.

    Nevetheless, it will be up to conservation groups like Peter’s, which I assume has no “partners” in either the palm oil or paper industry, to keep guys like Wilmar and APP honest

  4. There are two trends which will totally undermine the objective of reducing the destruction caused by palm oi: Firstly, the US has increased palm oil imports by about 2.3 times since 2005 and while those are still far below EU palm oil imports, they’re forecast to keep rising ( I understand that’s largely a result of the trans-fat crackdown but US palm oil imports for biodiesel are now rising, too.

    And secondly, EU palm oil imports grew from 4.5 million tonnes in 2006 to 5.4 million tonnes in 2012. At least 80% of that growth was for biofuels, with palm oil use in biodiesel increasing by 365% ( Yet there has been very little campaigning by bigger NGOs to try and counter those disastrous trends. Sure, some groups have been pushing the EPA to keep palm oil out of the Renewable Fuel Standard, Friends of the Earth Europe has publicly warned about the growth on palm oil use in EU biofuels, etc. But it makes me wonder what might have been achieved if the same NGO resources put into campaigns for zero deforestation announcement had been put into tackling this major palm oil demand growth, i.e. tackling the underlying causes of deforestation, landgrabbing etc for palm oil.

  5. The growth in US and EU imports of palm oil is one problem, but the bigger problem is that the much bigger and even more rapidly expanding Chinese and Indian markets do not care who they buy their palm oil or pulp from, and probably won’t do until the last area of natural forest is cleared for plantations.

    However good Greenpeace, WWF and a few others might feel about themselves, and however effective their ‘victories’ are in securing new supporters, they are still only creating ‘niche’ markets with niche supply chains reliant on niche areas of marginal, protected, forest – which might or might not persist into the longer future – but surrounded by a sea of devastation as swathes of land continue to be given out to non-discriminating and completely non-accountable companies that supply India, China, the Middle East etc.

  6. A forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia in Jakarta wrote an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post, published on 7 May 2014:

    In the last three years Greenpeace, together with The Forest Trust (TFT) and Indonesian palm oil giant Golden Agri Resources, have been developing a way to do this — the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. It’s what we call “putting No Deforestation into practice” — a process already trialed by Indonesian palm oil giant Golden Agri Resources, and already under scientific review. The process determines which viable areas of natural forests must be protected and restored, as well as ensuring that the current and future land use rights of local communities are respected.
    Greenpeace and its supporters have petitioned, lobbied and called out companies involved in forest destruction. We don’t stop simply because a company has a paper agreement to stop deforestation.

    This promise must translate to change on the ground, and Greenpeace will continue to expose companies for their role in forest destruction — even those companies long considered to be so-called leaders in forest protection.