On November 17th, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), the second biggest paper company in Indonesia, held a webinar to announce a new set of 10 year goals for social and environmental sustainability known as APRIL 2030. The webinar was led by Anderson Tanoto, president of the family conglomerate Royal Golden Eagle (RGE), that controls APRIL. The Tanoto family also controls the pulp producing company Toba Pulp Lestari – TPL.

The new commitment looks bombastic: it stretches from visionary pillars like protecting the climate, thriving landscapes, eradicating poverty and creating sustainable growth. Specific targets include zero net emissions from land use, landscape conservation, halving of children stunting, eliminating extreme poverty in areas around company operations, increased recovery and reducing waste through products for a “circular” economy. 

This seems fantastic, but, didn’t the very same company announce a different set of commitments five years ago? Indeed, it was called APRIL’s Sustainable Forest Management Policy (SFMP) 2.0. However, key promises from this commitment have still not been implemented. 

APRIL’s legacy separates it from a ‘normal’ company. It is a company that expanded its business to reach its global position by large scale devastation of precious rainforests, including habitat of some of the last populations of Orangutan and Sumatran tigers. It is a company whose expansion on the land of local communities left thousands of people without livelihoods, it is the company that by emissions generated from converting and draining peat bogs, created one of the major threats to the global climate crisis. The commitment made in 2015 was aimed to regain credibility by repairing a little part of the damages caused in the previous decades.

The company at that time committed to stop sourcing from deforestation fibre, to resolve social conflicts with local communities, to protect peat landscapes. Once fully implemented commitments, would be commendable to reasoning about more ambitious targets. But have these commitments been implemented? No, they haven’t. The company is still sourcing from deforestation fibre, peatlands are emitting huge amounts of CO2, and dozens and dozens of social conflicts remain unresolved around APRIL suppliers’ plantations. What is the meaning of announcing new commitments while the old one – much less ambitious – still has not been implemented? 

A threat to the global climate: peatlands erosion

Indonesian swamp forests form a layer of peat over thousands of years from forest debris conserved by a permanent waterlogged condition. When a peat-swamp is drained, peat oxidises, and dissolves in the air, emitting the carbon it is made of. This happens more quickly in the event of a fire, like in 2015, 2017 and 2019, but it also happens without the presence of a fire, at a rate of 80 t carbon per hectare per year, measured by scientists in APRIL plantations. This is why the plantations of APRIL suppliers emit more than 19 million tons per year  – that is equal to the emissions of a small industrialised country. APRIL claims that they control the water level (EcoHydro system), and when it works, the peat oxidising (and emissions) is just a slightly slower, but does not stop. The only solution would be to re-flood the peatlands and plant water-resistant species, but APRIL does not seem convinced by this hypothesis at all, and will not be able to achieve zero emissions from the use of the soil, without the use of disingenuous accounting.

Biodiversity and landscapes: protection or devastation?

APRIL can boast of its conservation projects, but if it can’t stop deforestation in its supply chain, it doesn’t have much credibility. Since 2015, since it published its SFMP 2.0 commitment, APRIL has been involved in numerous cases of deforestation and even illegality. The last two cases are from just a few months ago in Sumatra and Borneo.

Other measures, such as increasing the productivity of plantations, are aimed at economic efficiency rather than the environment, since they will likely aim for an increase in production to meet growing needs of fibre rather than to a reduction in cultivated land,.. Unfortunately in nature there is no increase that does not have a cost, perhaps hidden. In this case, the cost of a faster growth rate of the acacia is poured into the soil through erosion – or the chemicals used to balance erosion – a detriment to the surrounding environment, particularly the rivers into which the plantations drain.

Social responsibility, poverty and more

It is remarkable that APRIL presents itself as the hero that can eradicate extreme poverty, while it is actually one of poverty’s major causes in the areas affected by pulp plantations. The plantations require a few hours of seasonal work, normally in poor conditions under subcontracting companies, while the same acreage would offer a decent living to numerous farming families. Many believe that it would have been better if APRIL focused on resolving the hundreds of social conflicts  created by expanding into the customary lands of local communities before announcing grandiose charitable projects. Likewise, instead of organizing schools, APRIL could fully pay the taxes due so schools can be assured independently from the charity of the company.

Sustainable growth 

APRIL also announced a package of measures aimed to advance circularity, such as increasing material efficiency and chemical recovery, reutilize textile waste in viscose production and use agricultural waste for pulp production. These measures are actually mostly aimed at production efficiency, but some of them may have positive impacts. However, in five years, APRIL has not been able to credibly implement its commitment made in 2015. 

Wouldn’t it be honest to focus on keeping promises that have already been made,, instead of rebounding and relaunching stratospheric commitments to hide the poor implementation of much more modest and basic previous commitments? 

Either there is a lack of strategic management, or the company decided to implement a communication strategy to deflect attention on the old commitments by announcing prestigious targets for 2030. When we are at the verge of 2030, will there be a new commitment for 2040, or accountability for their promises? And so on. The question is: will be buyers and financiers willing to give credit to APRIL’s public relations strategy? Or will they hold APRIL accountable for its SFMP 2.0.?

The full recording of the event can be viewed at APRIL2030 Virtual Launch.