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Virginia Paper Company Linked To Rainforest Destruction

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A paper company with a footprint in Virginia is being taken to task by the World Wildlife Fund for reports that there are fibers in its paper products from Indonesian rainforests that serve as tiger sanctuaries.
World Wildlife Fund
A paper company with a footprint in Virginia is being taken to task by the World Wildlife Fund for reports that there are fibers in its paper products from Indonesian rainforests that serve as tiger sanctuaries.

The World Wildlife Fund issued a surprising plea last week, asking consumers to take care when buying toilet paper. The organization says a Virginia firm and its sister company are destroying rainforests to make a cheap paper products.

Paper company faces accusations

By some estimates, the world is losing 50 million acres of tropical rainforest a year -- an area double the size of Virginia. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, much of the destruction has been traced to a Chinese company called Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).  The family that owns APP also owns and supplies Mercury Paper, a company that moved to Virginia after the governor offered it a $250,000 incentive to relocate there from California.

APP was recently singled out by Greenpeace, when laboratory analysis showed its paper towels, cardboard and toilet paper were made from rainforest trees." APP products have either traces or large amounts of this rainforest fiber," says Rolf Skar, a forest specialist with Greenpeace.

APP’s Sustainability Director, Ian Lifshitz, says the company sets aside 40 percent of its land for conservation and community development, and it never destroys pristine forests: "85 percent of our raw material comes from existing plantations -- a tree farm," Lifshitz says.

But Greenpeace says those tree farms lead to lost habitat for wildlife and lost rainforest for a warming planet. "They are actually the leading driver of deforestation," says Skar.

APP dismisses that claim, suggesting his company’s critics don’t know what they’re talking about. "I’m assuming you haven’t been out to Indonesia and I know for a fact, actually, a lot of these environmental organizations haven’t either," Lifshitz says.

On the ground in Indonesia's rainforest

Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund actually do have dozens of local partners on the ground in the Indonesian rainforest, including Andrew DeSousa, who works for an orangutan sanctuary. DeSousa says some companies are clearing natural areas because it makes financial sense to do so.

"When they start in good quality forest, at least they can make some initial profit from selling that wood," says DeSousa. "It can hold the company over until four or five years when the first crops start to come in."

Asia Pulp and Paper says it has permission from Indonesia’s government to create tree plantations on degraded land. But the rainforest is vast, corruption in government is rampant, and maps are not always accurate. The World Wildlife Fund says some land labeled as degraded is perfectly good habitat for elephants, which are now facing possible extinction in Sumatra. They’ve lost 70 percent of the jungle -- their food source - in the last 25 years.

The company points proudly to a sanctuary it established for critically endangered tigers, but World Wildlife Fund's Jan Vertefeuille says APP’s taking down that rainforest too.

"We found out, through satellite imagery, that APP was clearing part of its own tiger sanctuary," Vertefeuille says. "They had told the government that they were going to protect this area, and they were actually clear cutting it."

Philip Rundle, Mercury’s special advisor for corporate and government affairs, dismisses that claim and suggests the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and an Indonesian coalition called Eyes on the Forest are misinformed.

"Satellite pictures don’t tell a story," Rundle says. "We believed there were chemical weapons in Iraq, and there were not."

This report is the first part of a three-part series on Mercury Paper and the reported destruction of rainforest habitats stemming from their supplier. In Virginia Public Radio's next report, some American retailers are responding to environmentalists' claim by boycotting APP and Mercury -- prompting the company to go on a campaign to win business back.

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