Boycotts alone won't stop the haze

I returned to Britain last month after another of my regular trips to Singapore, with fond memories of another great F1, but glad to see the back of the haze. For the Singapore Government, always aspiring to meet the highest standards in everything it does, it is easy to understand the anger brought about by a crisis rooted in causes seemingly outside its control.

Since leaving the British government in 2010, I have travelled to Asean more than to any other part of the world. The trip that left the strongest impressions on me was when I saw the damage being done by deforestation in Indonesia. That was in 2011. I had travelled out to Riau at the invitation of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) to visit one of the company's concessions. Back then, APP made regular appearances in the headlines - much like today.

This is not the first time APP products have been boycotted. When I visited Riau, the company was the target of a relentless NGO campaign that had brought about an effective consumer boycott across Europe and North America.

At the time my firm, Global Counsel, against the advice of many in Europe, had agreed to work with the company, to help them to understand and adapt to new European Union trade and sustainability legislation that sought to protect Indonesian forests by requiring all exporters to meet common legal standards. I was warned that APP was incapable of change. Four years on, I have seen major change in APP.

The most significant shift APP's shareholders made was the decision to fundamentally reconfigure its business model to introduce systems to eliminate any natural forest fibre from its supply chain. This approach was put into practice through its Forest Conservation Policy, adopted in February 2013, which committed the company to halting all further clearance of natural forests. That pledge was challenging, considering the vast areas its supply chain covers, but it has been met, having been validated by independent evaluations such as that undertaken by the Rainforest Alliance earlier this year.

But the truth is much more complex: Fires are caused by poverty, lack of law enforcement, patronage and corruption, and poor management of peatland.

Once APP halted the bulldozers, it quickly began to realise that it could not do this in isolation. Land tenure in Indonesia is a patchwork of overlapping concessions, competing claims by companies and local communities, and outright illegal encroachment. Protecting the forest means looking at the entire landscape, much of which is outside of concessions directly within APP's control. And, over the last two years, the company has sought to do just this, forming partnerships that stretch beyond concession boundaries with leadership from provincial governments, bringing together private sector actors within the broader landscape, local communities, NGOs and international partners such as Norway and Britain. This work sits within a wider zero-deforestation movement that has been embraced by the United Nations, major global commodity buyers and the largest commodity producers. This is a trend which is irreversible.


Boycott, and the threat of legal action, has certainly made firms and the Indonesian government sit up and take notice. But the long-term solution to preventing fires from recurring annually is harder to enforce and blunt instruments such as boycotts raise valid questions but do not help find the answers, argues the writer. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

It takes many stakeholders working together to protect the rainforest - but sadly only the actions of a few to set it on fire. Having seen for myself the time, energy and financial resources APP has invested over the last two years in protecting the landscapes in which it operates, I see no logic in the argument that APP is burning its forests for financial gain. Clearly more work needs to be done to tackle this, but why invest hundreds of millions of dollars protecting a resource just to set fire to it? Indeed, as part of its zero-deforestation commitment, APP has formally committed to paying to restore any forests which are burned down within its concession areas.

FairPrice is one of a growing number of companies in Singapore which, over the last two weeks, have removed APP products from their shelves in a bid to put pressure on companies deemed to be playing a role in causing haze. Of course, I understand the public anger: When Singaporeans look at the fires raging across Sumatra and Kalimantan, they see greed, incompetence and a toxic cocktail of inaction, impunity and indifference by both public and private actors.

But the truth is much more complex: Fires are caused by poverty, lack of law enforcement, patronage and corruption, and poor management of peatland. Of course, all industry players bear some responsibility: The widespread and, to date, uncontrolled practice of draining peatlands for cultivation of wood, palm oil and other products is the fundamental cause of forest fires. In addition, local protection rackets intimidating those serving the APP supply chain use the threat of fire to extract rent from smallholders - one of many thorny social phenomena identified as a cause of fire by expert groups such as the Centre For International Forestry Research (Cifor). As a business APP has to do all it can to stamp out these practices.

These are challenges a boycott can draw attention to but cannot solve. Even the most grizzled eco-warriors know this: Greenpeace, the world's most feared environmental campaigning NGO, once targeted APP mercilessly through a global consumer boycott. However, ultimately, Greenpeace decided that it could make a greater impact by working with the company to change its practices. The NGO has played an instrumental role in shaping APP's Forest Conservation Policy and in monitoring its implementation, which in turn has had a much bigger impact on protecting Indonesian rainforests than a boycott alone could ever have done.

So what is the solution to the haze? The boycott, along with the threat of legal action, has certainly made companies and the Indonesian government sit up and take notice. Resources are now being deployed to put out the fires. But the long-term solution to preventing forest fires from recurring annually is harder to enforce and blunt instruments such as boycotts raise valid questions but they do not help find the answers.

Much like the problem of deforestation, forest fires require stakeholders to work together. An expert task force consisting of representatives from the public and private sectors, scientists and civil society from Singapore and Indonesia and other countries with expertise in the issue can work to address the root causes of fires, develop solutions, and enforce and monitor their implementation.

This is what is required in order to find a lasting solution. The group needs to be effective, transparent and accountable - but above all, it must be given a proper mandate to find solutions rather than just apportioning blame. Once the smoke from the fire clears, I hope this is what emerges.

The writer is chairman of Global Counsel, whose team has since 2011 supported APP in Europe and Asia to meet the expectation of public policymakers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Boycotts alone won't stop the haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe