- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2010


The most activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) try to apply universal standards and unwavering timelines to every geography on the planet, to every company and every population, regardless of the stage of growth and development in which an economy finds itself. “Progress” is always dismissed as being too little. One moral standard and a single cultural behavior are expected, without regard to the diversity of people and rules of independent sovereign nations.

Oftentimes this rigidity is reflected in the information and reports promoted by these groups. At best, such materials have as their hallmark exaggerated information and, at worst, content that can be unverifiable and false.

But the real danger behind uncompromising positions and tactics that suggest falsehoods is that such actions ultimately cause long-term damage. The constructive dialogue that can drive the solutions these NGOs seek is, in fact, diminished, along with public trust around the ability of NGOs, government and the private sector to work together productively for human progress.

A recent report from Greenpeace criticizing our company, Indonesian-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), around our environmental and conservation record is such an example. The report was developed without input from us and asserts, among other things, that APP has a “secret plan” to expand its pulp mills exponentially and cut down high-conservation-value forests, including those that are home to endangered tigers.

The claim that APP seeks to increase its current pulping capacity is not only false but illogical. It would take roughly 8 million hectares (19.77 million acres) gross to support the production of 17 million tons of pulp, as Greenpeace purports. Yet the total land mass allocated for pulpwood plantations in Indonesia is only about 10 million hectares (24.71 acres) to support legal and sustainable plantation forestry. What’s more, APP’s pulpwood suppliers operate pulpwood plantations, according to the government of Indonesia’s Spatial Plan, the foundation of the country’s land-use laws, which set aside nearly half of all land for conservation. APP supports the protection of more than 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) of production forest to serve as the core of the Senepis Sumatran Tiger Sanctuary in Riau province. This pioneering initiative is actively contributing to the survival of this species, not its extinction.

Greenpeace has been wrong before. The group’s 2006 Guide to Greener Electronics, which rated consumer electronics manufacturers on their use of toxic chemicals and recycling plans, was questioned for its methodology and errors by several companies named in the report, including Apple, a company that enjoys a sound environmental reputation recognized by the Sierra Club.

There are other examples of an absence of due diligence among NGOs: In 2008, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) said orangutans are predicted to become extinct as early as 2011, which, not surprisingly, raised the ire of people around the world. RAN later admitted that the figure was inaccurate, and a company spokesperson said, “We are a campaigning organization, so research is not our main thrust.”

NGOWatch, a project of Global Governance Watch, which seeks to hold NGOs accountable to the same standards they insist on from government and the private sector, has noted that one group, Green America (formerly Co-Op America) does not actively employ economics or cost-benefit analysis to assess the role and contributions of corporations in America and instead promotes any campaign, regardless of its veracity, that is anti-business.

About 25 years ago, environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” to describe insincere corporate environmental behaviors. It’s a watchword that businesses, including ours, take seriously. But the shoe is increasingly on the other foot. A 2008 paper published in the journal Biotropica introduced “blackwashing” to our vernacular, a term to describe the practice of exaggerating and making false claims by activist groups.

Regardless of the finger-pointing from either side, the truth is, developing practices and processes that fulfill forest and forest-product certification criteria, and indeed crafting conservation programs in general, is complicated and not without challenges.

Rather than going to extremes, activist NGOs should adopt an approach that focuses their resources and efforts on attainable solutions that balance the complex and interconnected needs of all parties in the environmental debate.

We are not opposed to making dramatic progress in improving our environment and further protecting and expanding the protected lands around the world. In fact, APP is leading that dramatic progress. However, unlike many NGOs, we have a responsibility to the people and the governments that are our partners to both protect the land on which they live and provide the jobs that keep food on the table. We embrace and already are advancing sustainable practices in Indonesia and other nations. We comply fully with externally audited Legal Origin Verification and Chain of Custody systems and protocols, and our main paper mills have been certified by the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

We know that progress is being made in protecting rainforests and increasing the amount of land protected, but that progress must be aligned with the needs of the people who live and work around them. Companies, like APP, are on the front lines every day and have to balance both requirements and are dedicated to making progress in both. That’s our commitment to sustainability, and it is real. NGOs should help us as partners achieve these goals, not become our adversaries in the effort.

Aida Greenbury is managing director for sustainability and stakeholder engagement for Asia Pulp & Paper Group. The company, headquartered in China and Indonesia, markets its products in 65 countries.

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