Imperiled Riches - Threatened Rainforests


July 27, 2012

Vast swatches of rainforest have been chopped down to supply the pulp and paper industry. Typically valuable trees are harvested first. The forest is then leveled with remaining trees sent to a mill where they are chipped into pulp, which is either exported or turned into paper. The cleared land is then planted with eucalyptus or acacia, which is harvested on a 6-8 year cycle. When timber prices are high, a pulp and paper company may sell the tree trunks for timber and only use the branches and other fiber for pulp.

Since the mid-1990s the majority of deforestation for pulp and paper production in the tropics has occurred in Indonesia, primarily on the island of Sumatra. In fact, the pulp and paper industry is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia, accounting for roughly 20 percent of deforestation in the 2000s and 50 percent of peatlands conversion. Due to the high rates of peat conversion for plantations, the pulp and paper sector was estimated in 2009 to generate more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, more than 70 percent of which result from peat. Among major commodities, pulp and paper has the highest emissions per dollar of of commodity produced — higher than conversion of peatlands for oil palm or rainforest conversion for soy or cattle ranching.

Peat forest cleared for industrial acacia in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Two major companies account for 80 percent of Indonesia's pulp and paper production: Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) [owned by the multinational Sinar Mas conglomerate] and Asian Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) [owned by the Singapore-based Royal Golden Eagle Group]. Both have been heavily criticized by environmentalists and conservation scientists for their forest management practices. Both have also been accused of greenwashing their image, claiming their operations do little harm to the environment. APP has even backed astroturf groups — fake organizations set up to support a corporation's messaging strategy — in Canada and the United States to go after environmental groups that have criticized it and companies that have stopped buying its products.

Eyes of the Forest, a coalition of Indonesian NGOs, estimates that APP and APRIL cleared 2 million hectares of natural forests in Riau, accounting for nearly half the Sumatran province's recent forest loss.

Paper products sold by APP and APRIL are available in markets around the world. However since 2009, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), and WWF have waged a campaign against companies that source paper, cardboard and other products from these companies, especially in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Dozens of corporations have since stopped buying from APP and APRIL.

In response to these campaigns and criticism, APP and APRIL have both recently adopted "zero deforestation" policies that bar conversion of natural forests and peatlands for plantations. More details on these commitments can be found in the news feed below.

Cleared peatland with rainforest in the background in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Articles on pulp and paper

Acacia plantation in peatlands in Sumatra. The impact of paper production on forests can be substantial. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why can selective logging be destructive in the rainforest?
  • What is the hunting of wild animals for food called?
  • What is greenwash?

Continued / Next: Mining in the Rainforest