Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

For years, Asia Pulp and Paper ruled over a corporate kingdom built on environmental ruin. A subsidiary of the Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas, APP converted several square miles of Indonesian rainforest each month into pulp used for books, magazines, fast-food wrappers, toy packaging, and toilet paper. In other words, the company’s standard operating procedures meant that people all around the world were literally flushing the pulverized remains of tiger habitat down the toilet.

So it was quite a reversal when, two and a half years ago, APP announced that it would immediately bring its rainforest-clearing operations to a halt. Looking back now, it's clear that this was the start of something  bigger: Last week, APP’s largest competitor, Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, pledged to stop cutting down forests too. As Amy Moas, an environmental scientist and a Greenpeace activist, put it, “This is massive.” Together, APP and APRIL account for about 80 percent of all the pulp and paper produced by Indonesia, the most prolific paper-producing country in the world.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether these companies will follow through on their commitments in the long run, and even if they do, significant portions of the natural forests have already been damaged. Still, for the vast array of species that live in them, including orangutans, elephants, and the last few hundred surviving Sumatran tigers, there’s suddenly cause for hope. APP’s about-face may hold some useful lessons for businesses and environmentalists alike: It’s a case study in how even the most stubbornly destructive companies can be persuaded to change their ways.

The shift began a little over a decade ago, when powerful companies were "destroying an area of rainforest the size of Belgium every year," said Bustar Maitar, the director of the Greenpeace campaign to end rainforest destruction in the country. In 2003, Greenpeace released “Partners In Crime,” a report on Indonesia’s illegal logging industry. While the exposé focused on the plywood trade and not on the two biggest causes of forest destruction, paper and palm-oil production, it set the template for future fights by highlighting the links between Indonesian companies and their Western business partners. This indirect tactic— going after Indonesian businesses by shaming the name-brand companies that buy from them—would prove to be the key to Greenpeace’s success with Sinar Mas, the parent company of APP.

In 2009, Greenpeace took aim at Nestlé, then a buyer of Sinar Mas palm oil. In many ways, what followed was typical of Greenpeace’s broader strategy. The organization chose a single charismatic animal species—in this case, the orangutan—to serve as a symbol of the larger issues at stake. It released a report exposing the connections between Nestlé and Sinar Mas, and printed billboards and leaflets that parodied ads for Kit Kat bars, turning the brand’s universal recognizability into a liability.

It enlisted people in physical stunts—such as rappelling from the ceiling at a shareholder meeting in Switzerland—as well as virtual ones. In a fake Kit Kat commercial released on YouTube, an office worker was shown taking a bloody bite into a severed orangutan finger. When Nestlé demanded that the video be taken down, Greenpeace supporters blasted the company on Facebook. Eight weeks later, a chastened Nestlé announced that it would eliminate companies that razed jungles from its supply chain. (When asked for comment, a Nestlé spokesperson did not dispute this account.)

Within a year, one Sinar Mas subsidiary, Golden Agri-Resources, agreed to stop turning ancient forests into palm-tree plantations. Yet its sister company, APP, was still at it, chopping down habitat to make paper for companies such as Danone and Xerox. So, with the Nestlé battle behind them, Greenpeace’s activists set their sights on the pulp-and-paper sector, and on APP specifically. After learning that Mattel, an APP customer, was using rainforest paper to package Barbie dolls, activists draped a four-story banner of a sternly disapproving Ken from the roof of Mattel’s headquarters, near Los Angeles.

Demonstrations and stunts like these helped persuade more than 100 companies to drop APP as a supplier. “This is a story of people taking action,” Maitar declared in a promotional booklet recounting the effort. “It is the story of millions of people from Indonesia and all around the world, who answered our calls to action and made those in power sit up and pay attention.”

Maitar’s account is a touch triumphant, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that Greenpeace played an important role in getting APP to change. "It is fair to say that we might not be where we are today without the relentless intervention of Bustar Maitar and his global Greenpeace team members,” acknowledged Aida Greenbury, the managing director of sustainability at APP. She added that the company is now working closely with Greenpeace and other groups to make good on its promise. In doing so, Greenpeace has gone from “outspoken campaigning critic to critical friend,” she said.  

For some inhabitants of the forest, though, it may be too late. In April, the conservation site Mongabay reported that an Indonesian rhino subspecies known as the Bornean rhino may already be extinct in the wild. Writing in The Jakarta Post, Ketut Putra, the vice president of Conservation International Indonesia, explained why the new policies adopted by APP and now APRIL won’t add up to save the forest  on their own. “The root of the problem,” he wrote, “is that the people who are clearing much of this forest are very poor and in need of reliable income.”

It’s clear that for activists, businesses and policy makers, there's a lot of work to be done. But the changes at APP and APRIL are a start.

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