Another environmental watchdog in China bares its fangs as Singapore-based logging giant APP is hit with charges of unlawful tree clearing. A student protest in China has also targetted supermarkets stocking APP products
The State Forestry Administration has taken official action against the company and its operations in the south-western province of Yunnan.
"The investigation is not finished yet, but we have indeed spotted illegal logging in an APP project after initial investigation. We believe that both APP and local governments are responsible for the violation," Wang Zhuxiong, a senior SFA official told the official newsagency Xinhua.
The news comes in the wake of a damning report by Greenpeace on the company’s tree felling practices in Yunnan, which was released last November. The environmental group claims that APP sequestered a 1.8 million acre plot in, intensively clear-felled it and replaced it with plantation crops.
Greenpeace says this is an example of APP’s “international record of illegal logging” and is evidence that it is “repeating its traditional practice of clearing natural forest for plantations in Yunnan.
Despite the fact that the company signed an understanding with provincial authorities, Greenpeace claims that there is no felling permit and that APP’s operations violate China’s Forestry Law.
APP was quoted in a Xinhua article as saying the company only targeted wasteland.
Similarly, the company’s relationship with environmental group WWF in Indonesia eventually dissolved on the basis of similar disagreements over what is “degraded” forest and thus open for logging, and what is wilderness and thus off-limits.
An APP spokesperson in China contacted by Ethical Corporation referred us to an earlier statement which outlined the company’s environmental approach.
The statement argues that the company has been pushing for a “forest-pulp-paper integration” scheme which, they argue “ensures that we have full control over the entire paper-making process – from the planting of trees for sustainable raw materials to the use of eco-friendly technology for processing pulp and paper.”
The statement also says the company has invested in a range of technologies to reduce environmental impacts.
“We share the same objective as those who are concerned for the environment – to protect our habitat, the earth. At the same time, we recognise that the only way to protect our natural resources and benefit the community is through a sustainable economic model,” it says.
No direct reference is made to the pending legal action.
The case highlights a shift in environmental consciousness in China.
At a general level, it is evidence that the government appears prepared to allow environmental NGOs some leeway to target both foreign and local companies, as well as local government officials.
The enormous increase in numbers of conservation groups in the country looks to have been encouraged by Beijing authorities who perhaps see these groups as acting as the sharp edge of environmental reforms, which many in the government are keen to pursue.
In this way, green groups in China may be emerging as de facto environmental regulators, highlighting problems and spotting trouble areas, whilst not sapping government resources.
At a more specific level, the case may be the first example of a foreign company being taken to court on environmental grounds, says Xinhua. While no action has yet been served on the company, commentators are watching closely as it may become a foundation for company-government relations in regard to environmental sustainability.
If charged and convicted, APP operatives face harsh punishment. Under Chinese law, illegal deforestation carries a maximum seven year jail term.
At this stage, environmental officials are certainly talking up the case. "No violator will escape punishment when the investigation is finished," said Wang, deputy director of the Forest Resources Management Department under the SFA, at a national conference on cracking down on deforestation activities in Beijing.
The announcement comes as a mass student protest in China stage a Day of Action in six cities to call on the company to cease their “destructive logging practices”, according to a statement.
The students will be boycotting APP products and will be asking companies to follow. Protestors took up positions in front of supermarket shelves featuring APP products in Beijing, Hefei, Nanning, Lanzhou, Harbin and Chengdu. Passing shoppers were told of the company’s forestry operations in Yunnan and elsewhere.
However, many environmentalists are approaching the possibility that China may be tidying up its timber industry with some caution.
While such cases as this may indicate a strengthening of legislation, many are concerned that the country’s industry is simply exporting the problems elsewhere by buying in lumber from countries such as Russia or Indonesia, where environmental standards are limited and from where illegal wood smuggling is common.
Write to James Rose at James.Rose@ethicalcorp.com