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Could haze-linked paper giant APP return to supermarkets in Singapore?

A green label certificate could mean APP products are back on sale in Singapore four years after they were stripped from supermarket shelves because of the company's role in the worst haze crisis in Southeast Asia's history. Some NGOs say the certification is not justified.

Products made by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a controversial Indonesian paper company implicated in the worst haze crisis in Southeast Asia’s history, could soon be back on sale in Singapore less than five years after they were stripped from supermarket shelves.

APP has been awarded the enhanced Singapore Green Labelling Scheme (SGLS+) certification by non-government organisation (NGO) Singapore Environment Council (SEC), along with other large multnational paper firms including Texas-headquartered Kimberly-Clark.

The certification, which was specially developed in response to the 2015 haze crisis to address the problem’s root causes, could mean that tissue paper and other products under brands such as Nice, Jolly, and Paseo will return to retailers in Singapore four years after the SEC rescinded APP’s green label when the company was heavily linked to the catastrophic fires.

The 2015 haze, caused by forest fires and the burning of peat lands for agriculture in Indonesia, affected eight countries in Southeast Asia, causing an estimated US$700 million in economic losses in Singapore and US$22 billion in Indonesia. Many of the fires originated from the concessions of APP, and the company is still under investigation by Singapore’s National Environment Agency for its role in the 2015 haze crisis.

To attain the SGLS+ certification, companies must demonstrate their capabilities at managing peat lands, detecting and suppressing fires, and ensuring the welfare of village communities in and around their plantations.

Zech Chan, chairman of SEC’s Green Label Steering Committee, said in a statement that APP’s products were certified “based primarily on current practices, not on the past.”

The certification is an important milestone in the history of APP, a company that, over 35 years of operations in Indonesia, has pulped an estimated 2 million hectares of rainforest, land area 28 times of Singapore.

The company pledged to stop clearing natural forests as part of a landmark Forest Conservation Policy in 2013, and the SGLS+ certification signals a vote of confidence in the work APP has done to improve its sustainability credentials.

Bernard Tan, a former Singapore army officer and DBS banking executive who joined APP as managing director of corporate affairs and sustainability in July 2017, told Eco-Business that the company has spent about US$150 million on fire prevention and suppression since the 2015 haze, and SEC’s certificate reflected its efforts to mitigate haze risk.

“From the [pulp and paper] producers’ point of view, the 2015 haze was devastating. The industry lost a significant hectarage of standing stock. We also cannot run a good business when fire and haze continually affects communities, the country and the region. It was clear that with us being a part of the wider ecosystem, we needed to do more,” he said, citing a community outreach programme to avoid fire as a land clearance method that had reached 300 villages in Indonesia.

“In the last three years, there has been a huge reduction in fires in fire-prone areas [in Indonesia]. This is despite the fact that 2018 was a dry year, when the incidence of fires went up, but fires on APP concessions stayed low.”

“After the 2015 haze, consumers in Singapore expressed their preference to buy from sustainable sources. Given that SEC has given us the enhanced green label certification, I believe it’s sufficient to convince Singapore consumers to buy APP products again,” he added.

I don’t understand why SEC awarded SGLS+ certification to APP. On the ground we don’t see significant behaviour change from the company. Aidil Fitri, executive director, Hutan Kita Institute

NGOs are not convinced

The SEC green labelling news has been met with scepticism from some NGOs. They believe that, despite improvements the company has made to reduce fire on its concessions, APP continues to pose a major haze risk for the region.

Aidil Fitri, executive director of Hutan Kita Institute (HaKI), an Indonesian green group that protested against a proposed supplier for a massive new mill APP built in South Sumatra in 2017, said that the company “continues to rely on drained peatlands to grow pulpwood, which means there is a very high risk of fire.”

“For that reason, I don’t understand why SEC awarded SGLS+ certification to APP. On the ground we don’t see significant behaviour change from the company,” he said.

According to HaKI’s assessment, 300,000 hectares of APP’s concession in South Sumatra burned in 2015—about 40 per cent of the total forest fires that burned there that year, most of them on peat land. Christopher Barr, executive director of Woods & Wayside, an environmental non-profit specialising in forest products supply chains, said that even with APP’s investment in fire management, areas planted on peat will continue to pose major risks for fire and haze, particularly during El Niño years.

“The fire risk from APP’s operations will not be significantly reduced until they stop producing pulpwood on peat, as climate change is causing longer and more frequent droughts which make drained peatlands highly flammable,” he said.

Benjamin Tay, executive director of Singapore-based NGO People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze), said that without more transparency over the criteria for SEC’s certification, it is difficult to assess whether or not the green label is justified.

“A company like APP can improve their standards of cultivation as long as they are given the right opportunities and prodded in the right direction,” he said. “I believe that the investigations on APP [by NEA] around the 2015 haze event have not yet been concluded. Therefore there is still much uncertainty around their accountability for the 2015 haze.”

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