A smoky haze has now lingered for months over Southeast Asia, sending cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses soaring and causing untold economic damage. It’s no surprise, then, that Southeast Asian environmental groups have taken their governments to task throughout the recent COP25 climate summit, exhorting them to do more to turn the region’s skies blue again.
While their methodologies are sometimes controversial, environmental NGOs have been rightfully sounding the alarm for years over the practices which are sending clouds of toxic haze billowing across Southeast Asia. Greenpeace has been particularly vocal in identifying the companies responsible for the haze affecting ASEAN, singling out corporations including Wilmar, Musim Mas, and Golden Agri, which belongs to Sinar Mas (owned by the influential Widjaja family).
While there remains much work to be done on reforming the palm industry, sustained pressure from Greenpeace and other NGOs has paid some dividends. Another major offender, meanwhile, has largely slipped under the radar: the paper and pulp industry. With Southeast Asian pulp producers threatening to export the region’s deadly haze as they move into Western markets, governments and environmental groups alike must ratchet up pressure on the paper industry to resolve the pollution crisis.
Palm industry infractions evading punishment
Palm oil companies have justifiably received significant blame for the fires ravaging Indonesia. Indeed, some 11% of the staggering 389,048 fire alerts recorded by the Indonesian government between January and October this year came from industrial concessions. To make matters worse, most of these alerts were signalled in peatlands – which are protected natural areas.
The corporations concerned continue their activities unabated with the support of agrofood behemoths whom they supply, such as Nestlé or Hershey. Governments in the region also tacitly support these firms by failing to back their rhetoric up with concrete action. “Stopping this recurring fire crisis should have been at the top of the government’s agenda since 2015. But our findings show the reality: empty words and weak and inconsistent law enforcement against companies”, said Kiki Taufik, Global Head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forests campaign.
Despite the fires, none of the targeted palm oil companies has so far been called out by authorities—and none had their licence revoked. In such a context, it is very unlikely that initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will be efficiently implemented.
It’s undeniable that the palm oil sector badly needs reform. However, it would be wrong to pin the blame solely on palm for ASEAN’s recurring haze crises. In reality, the pulp and paper sector plays a significant role in the burning of peatland, even if the media has focused more on the palm oil industry’s transgressions than paper producers’ wrongdoing.
Pulp and paper in the spotlight
A report released by Indonesian environmental organization Koalisi Anti Mafia Hutan and signed by a number of international organisations including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and American NGO Rainforest Action Network, has put a number of pulp producers in the hot seat. The report indicates that out of the eight concessions that recorded the worst fires in Indonesia, seven belong to Sinar Mas subsidiary Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL). The report’s conclusions aren’t surprising, as these two firms are notorious for not keeping their environmental commitments.
In 2013, APP, Indonesia’s largest pulp producer, buckled under pressure from various NGOs and promised to end its role in deforestation, adopting a forest conservation policy (FCP). It has since come out, however, that the firm placed some of its employees at the head of dummy companies which continued clearing forests in its stead, without fearing any sanctions as they were not bound to comply with the FCP. The subterfuge—unsurprisingly—angered NGOs which denounced the company and in some cases publicly ended their partnerships. “APP became the world’s most notorious pulp and paper company after years of forest destruction and links to human rights abuses”, Kiki Taufik declared. In fact, instead of preserving peatlands, APP and other pulp producers have been draining them, a process which makes them more vulnerable to fires. According to Koalisi Anti Mafia Hutan, they have drained 750,000 hectares of peatlands, an area roughly ten times the size of Singapore.
No end in sight
Not only do paper producers have a history of breaking their promises to become better environmental stewards, the current state of the global paper market doesn’t give them much of an incentive to shape up. Their damaging practices are mainly driven by ever-growing Chinese demand for paper products—a lucrative market which emerging economies like Indonesia naturally covet. The Middle Kingdom currently meets 70% of its paper needs with local companies and has taken over numerous companies active in the pulp industry, as well as financing the worldwide expansion of players such as APP and fellow Sinar Mas affiliate Paper Excellence.
This global expansion also means that the West could soon face a haze crisis similar to that which is choking Southeast Asia. APP, after successfully entering the Dutch and French markets, among others, is currently in talks to acquire stakes in five Canadian firms including Abercrombie Point and Meadow Lake. Affiliate Paper Excellence, meanwhile, has already made inroads into Canada, buying up pulp producer Northern Pulp in 2011 and 9 other facilities between 2007 and 20019.
Some industry insiders wonder how the Asian giants will behave in Western economies with stricter regulations. Things aren’t off to a great start: In Nova Scotia, local fishermen from Caribou Harbour, the Pictou Nation, and countless community groups recently opposed Northern Pulp’s plan to pipe treated wastewater effluent into some of Canada’s most pristine waters – the Northumberland Strait. Northern Pulp’s efforts were driven by the government’s decision to close its Boat Harbour facility by January 31, 2020, where the company has been charged for leaking untreated, poisonous effluent on several occasions.
A feasibility study associated with Northern Pulp’s latest pipeline scheme states that the pipelines, which are three meters below ground, should connect to the sea, four kilometers from the coast. This, according to the project’s environmental studies, should have been enough not to affect local marine fauna. Nevertheless, concerns about the reliability of the pipelines and the impact of treated pulp wastewater were not assuaged. On December 20, Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil decided to reject the extension request, which means the plant will shut down in January 2020.
Importantly, while environmentalists and local activists will welcome McNeil’s decision, there is broader concern about the reputation of Paper Excellence, particularly given parent company Sinar Mas’s environmental track record in Southeast Asia. And while the Indonesian firm could dissipate these concerns by adopting different methods and stricter policies, the cloud over its reputation may be as difficult to dissipate as the haze over Southeast Asia.
With Indonesian pulp producers exporting their lax environmental controls abroad and burning more land at home with every passing year, it’s clear that the world can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the sector’s shortcomings. The ongoing campaign to reform the palm oil sector through initiatives such as the RSPO has its drawbacks—but it offers a blueprint of how policymakers can begin to address the paper industry.