Companies unleash propaganda blitz in Indonesia forest wars

Green activists protest in Jakarta

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a subsidiary of major Indonesian palm oil producer Sinar Mas, has launched a greenwashing blitz to counter a series of damning allegations, mainly from Greenpeace, about its logging and land-clearing activities. Advertisements have appeared on pay-TV networks in Indonesia extolling the company’s careful forest stewardship, finishing with the slogan “APP cares”.

Sinar Mas has employed a PR firm Bell Pottinger to try to protect what’s left of its reputation. Greenpeace notes that Bell Pottinger also worked for Trafigura, a London-based company which was “recently convicted and fined for illegally transporting toxic waste to the Ivory Coast”.

The Trafigura scandal involved the secret dumping of highly toxic waste in the Ivory Coast because it was too expensive to dispose of it correctly in Europe. About 30,000 Africans became ill as a result, and the company has been ordered to pay around 210 million dollars in fines, damages and clean-up costs.

Does the choice of Bell Pottinger say anything about the state of Sinar Mas’s conscience? That begs the question: does Sinar Mas and the Widjaja family who control it have a conscience? Of course they do – APP cares, remember?

To prove its innocence Sinar Mas has been flying international news photographers over its concessions and inviting foreign diplomats in Jakarta to special briefings. Someone told me that the British refused to go, but I don’t know for sure.

Greenpeace and others allege APP and Sinar Mas are flouting promises of sustainable forest management by illegally clearing carbon-trapping peatlands, high-value forests and habitats of endangered species like orangutans. The campaign is taking a toll, with major clients including Unilever, Kraft and Nestle dropping Sinar Mas supplies due to concerns over forest management.

The company refuses to accept any criticism and has promised an “independent” audit of its activities to prove the allegations wrong. It says it only clears “degraded forest”, not high-value forest or orangutan habitat. The audit is due on Tuesday.

Meanwhile its palm oil unit, SMART, has shrugged off the Greenpeace attacks and announced plans for a massive expansion of production.

SMART’s president director, Daud Dharsono, told Reuters in an interview that the Greenpeace campaign had not affected the firm, which currently has around 430,000 hectares of plantation. SMART’s shares have risen 32.4 percent this year, beating the overall index which is up about 18 percent.

“SMART will grow and expand its palm oil plantations,” said Dharsono, 54, adding that SMART and GAR had a total of 100,000 hectares in its land bank, mostly in Central and West Kalimantan.

“Our planting expansion rate is 50,000 hectares per annum. If we can get new allocations, we will maintain that rate,” he said, adding that the firm planned to apply for additional land allocations from the government before the land bank ran out.

“We will not necessarily wait until it’s gone. We will mainly concentrate on West and Central Kalimantan,” he said.

Despite the booming share price, Sinar Mas’s Western backers are obviously concerned about potential damage to their brands from too close an association with Indonesia’s biggest palm oil producer. The latest big name to pull out was HSBC bank, which sold its Sinar Mas shares in July.

Greenpeace is calling on other Sinar Mas customers including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and Pizza Hut to follow suit.

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