In recent months, Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the largest multinationals in its sector, has been aggressively trying to increase its profile in North America, including in B.C.

The reason goes beyond the company’s sourcing of long-fibre pulpwood from B.C. mills owned by corporate partners, officials say.

It has been about two years since the Indonesia-based corporation announced its new Sustainability Roadmap and Forest Conservation Policy. The plan not only ended all natural forest clearing in its Indonesia supply chain in 2013, but also called for what officials described as a comprehensive reforestation, community engagement (including local indigenous peoples), wildlife conservation and emissions strategy. It is something that officials are touting as a model of multi-stakeholder engagement for North American consumers, including those in B.C., to consider.

“We are proud of the good, but we are aware of the bad … and we are transparent about that,” said Ian Lifshitz, APP’s director of sustainability and public outreach for the Americas. “Our customers want to work with someone with similar values and understanding. … So if you can meet that requirement, yes, you are going to win business.”

APP was heavily criticized in the 2000s by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund for several previous sustainability initiatives that NGOs later rejected for a lack of follow-through. The transgressions were thoroughly documented, resulting in APP losing clients such as toymaker Mattel, according to a Greenpeace release.

It was obvious that APP wanted to repair its image, but with its track record, the company’s latest proposal has been met with skepticism. But it appears that the current plan has finally signified real progress, with several NGOs now saying APP’s roadmap is a step in the right direction.

One of those groups is Greenpeace itself. In describing APP’s 2013 Forest Conservation Policy, officials from the international environmental group said it has suspended active campaigning against the company while independent assessments are conducted.

Rolf Skar, Greenpeace’s forests campaign director, admits this is an unusual position for his organization, which had expressed cautious optimism despite traditionally being one of the more active environmental groups globally.

“It’s a strange place for Greenpeace to be,” Skar said. “But the alternative is to condemn more trees to destruction. As with any project, you have to start somewhere, and we hope this succeeds because, if it fails, we will go back to where we were three, four years ago. That’s something we definitely don’t want to see.”

According to APP, it has committed to zero-deforestation of natural forests, using exclusively plantation lumber for pulp production. An aerial inspection showed lines as clear as those drawn in sand: Harvest operations in plantations filled with thin, uniform trees, while thickly layered natural-growth forest stands just a few feet away, untouched. (APP said last year it will conserve a million hectares of Indonesian rainforest this year as part of its conservation policy.)

Concerns remain, however. WWF has criticized the plantations, noting they damage the natural biodiversity and genetic variations of the tree stock. But Skar said NGOs are now starting to consider pragmatic ways to effect change, which involves talking with companies like APP and getting sustainable practices into these companies’ operational DNA.

“(The genetic diversity issue) is a legitimate ecological concern,” he said. “That said, living in the world that we live in, I don’t think there’s a way to totally say no to monocultural plantations. It’s a triage situation: We need to band-aid the wound before it can heal, and there’s been some progress in that regard.”
Skar added there is a heated, ongoing debate within the NGO community on this approach, and opinions are far from uniform.

There are also many challenges remaining. While a Rainforest Alliance audit released in February confirmed APP has halted its own forest-clearing operations, deforestation by other parties still occurs on APP forest concession land. Lifshitz said other companies that may have overlapping concession land claims, as well as local residents who sometimes view it within their right to use the land, complicate the issue — although APP is working very hard to address it through stakeholder mediations.

“This is the challenge we face when we try to implement our policy,” he said. “Like you can see, there are no fences between concession land and other land. Sometimes, our concessions can overlap with other concessions for things like mining and local community use. So you have the land of government, rival concession holders and local neighbours sometimes overlapping. It’s similar to B.C., although in Indonesia, it’s more complex.

“What does apply (from a B.C. perspective), I think, is that both have confrontations and consultations with local people and communities, and there is the need to balance and to ensure the entire supply chain is conflict-free.

“You see all the time the blurring of the line between legality and sustainability, because laws are often written to fit a practice, and it’s rare for laws to push the sector beyond where it currently stands. But just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s right. … It should be a process among multiple parties.”

But Skar does say that the turnaround at APP is encouraging, and there are signs that groups such as the WWF are more optimistic. APP’s declaration of restoring a million hectares of forest land had WWF officials “cautiously” welcoming the initiative, according to the group.

“The biggest thing is that APP was one of the biggest converters or, as we called it, ‘destroyers’ of rainforests in Asia, so this is a large transformation,” he said. “In this business, we tend to be pessimistic about the future.

“One thing that gives me hope is that this is now going in one direction. It’s only a question of the pace of change. … Everyone makes compromises along the way. The alternative is a back-and-forth fight that no one wins.”