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Investigation links APP to illegal logging of protected trees

Sumatra rainforest canopy seen from the base of a compass tree . Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Sumatra rainforest canopy seen from the base of a compass tree . Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

UPDATE: Greenpeace has stated that it has handed over evidence of illegal logging by APP suppliers to Indonesian police; an investigation looks likely.

A year-long undercover investigation has found evidence of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) companies cutting and pulping legally protected ramin trees, a practice that violates both Indonesian and international law. Found largely in Sumatra’s peatswamp forests, the logging of ramin trees (in the genus Gonystylus) has been banned in Indonesia since 2001; the trees are also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and thus require special permits to export. The new allegations come after APP, an umbrella paper brand, has lost several customers due to its continued reliance on pulp from rainforest and peatland forests in Sumatra, a practice that Greenpeace says is endangering the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and orangutan (Pongo abelii) as well as generating massive carbon emissions.

“Greenpeace has caught Asia Pulp and Paper red-handed—this investigation shows its main pulp mill is regularly riddled with illegal ramin. This makes a mockery of their public claim to have a ‘zero tolerance’ for illegal timber,” said Bustar Maitar, Head of the Forests Campaign for Greenpeace Indonesia, in a press release.

The thorough investigation started with undercover visits to Indonesia’s largest paper mill, Indah Kiat Perawang, run by APP. Investigators took video footage of ramin logs waiting to be pulped on site, some up to a meter in diameter. Forty-six tissue samples were also taken from the logs and independently verified as ramin in a lab run by the Institute of Wood Technology and Wood Biology at the University of Hamburg.

Sumatran orangutan in North Sumatra

Rainforest cleared for oil palm agriculture in North Sumatra. Photos taken by Rhett A. Butler.

“Controversial logs do appear from time to time at the mill,” a representative of APP admitted to “The wood checking stations at the mill remove the inventory and put the controversial logs in a separate quarantined area apart from the supply no as to not run the risk of contamination. The logs are retained as evidence, filed and reported. Suppliers are then penalized.”

But the investigation found that ramin logs were mixed-in with other unprotected species inside the mill gate. In addition, ramin trees are not supposed to be cut to begin with under Indonesian law.

“Ramin as you are aware is a protected tree species and is not cut. Often when you see a plantation area with the occasional ramin tree, it is because it is left standing (by law),” APP told last year.

In a statement from the brand today, APP reiterates that it has a “strict zero tolerance policy for illegal wood entering the supply chain” and employs a “comprehensive” system to keep illegal wood out. According to APP, before clearing a rainforest, their suppliers are supposed to note any protected trees and leave them standing. Checkpoints are then conducted before the logs reach the mill to ensure protected species are not on the trucks. Random tests on fiber in the mill is also conducted periodically.

“However, APP accepts that no system in the world, no matter how rigorous, is 100 percent failsafe,” APP’s statement today continues. “We welcome the recent report from Greenpeace International and will study it carefully—to ensure that we identify and act on any weaknesses in our chain of custody systems. It is APP’s desire to work with Greenpeace and other like-minded NGOs to improve our responsible sourcing policies and practices.”

APP says it has recently had an independent report done, which did not find any protected species in the mill. When asked to release details of the report a representative of APP told that the report “is not public” and “there are no immediate plans to publish the name of the auditors, although it is a very credible third party.”

Since 2001—when Indonesia listed ramin as protected—APP suppliers have logged at least 180,000 hectares of peatswamp forest according to Greenpeace. Peatswamp forests are critical habitat for the island’s remaining 400 Sumatran tigers and the Sumatran orangutan—both listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List—as well as thousands of other forest species, great and small. In addition the destruction of these forests and draining of the peatlands releases substantial greenhouse gas emissions, making Indonesia one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

After failing to keep two past pledges to forgo rainforest destruction for its paper products, APP has become a relentless target of NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF. Due to continued reliance on native rainforest, APP also lost Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) certification in 2007. Green groups have long accused APP of focusing more on slick PR campaigns and disinformation instead of actually cleaning up its operation on the ground.

“Greenpeace is calling on the [Indonesian] government to immediately seize all illegal ramin in APP’s operations in Indonesia,” Maitar says. “The evidence has been provided to authorities to assist in their efforts to improve governance in the forest sector. Any company buying from APP should distance themselves from this illegal rainforest scandal and stop buying from them until they clean up their act.”

Further analysis by Greenpeace found Indonesian rainforest fiber in products from several popular companies, including non-profit and scientific organization National Geographic, paper giant Xerox, retailer Wal-Mart, book company Barnes and Noble, and food company Danone among others. The products stemmed from rainforest timber milled at Indah Kiat Perawang, which links the companies not only to rainforest destruction, but also risks their exposure to illegally logged ramin. Since ramin is a protected species in Indonesia, its possible presence in U.S. products could lead to federal investigations.

“A product that comes into the US containing a CITES protected species like ramin with no legitimate paperwork should be grounds for a Lacey Act investigation an particularly if there’s repeated and robust evidence showing a pattern of the same practices,” Andrea Johnson with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The Lacey Act prohibits the sale and trade of wood products in the U.S. that are known to be illegally sourced.

In the past few decades, the island of Sumatra has become ground zero for rainforest destruction in Asia: between 1985 and 2007 Sumatra lost nearly half of its forest cover from logging, conversion into monoculture plantations, and forest fires. Beyond imperiling endangered species and massive carbon emissions, the deforestation crisis has also led to conflict with local people dependent on forests for their livelihoods.

Greenpeace video on investigation of ramin trees at APP mill.

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