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Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund issued a surprising plea, urging consumers to take care when buying toilet paper. The organization claimed a Virginia firm and its sister company were destroying rainforest to make pulp for cheap bathroom tissue. Since then, the company has promised not to cut down rainforest trees, but some environmentalists remain skeptical.
By some estimates, the world is losing 56,000 square miles of tropical rainforest a year — an area bigger than the state of Virginia. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, much of the destruction has been traced to a Chinese Company called Asia Pulp and Paper or APP. Its subsidiary — Mercury Paper — moved to Virginia after then-Gov. Bob McDonnell offered a $250,000 incentive to relocate from California.
At the World Wildlife Fund, Forest Program Director Linda Walker blames APP for dramatic drops in populations of orangutans, and big cats. The number of Sumatran tigers has dropped from 1,000 in the late '70s to just 400.
"These are large carnivores that need really intact forest and corridor areas," Walker says.
The elephant population is also down 80 percent, and they're increasingly in conflict with humans as they search for food.
"There was even an incident just a few weeks ago when I was in Indonesia of seven more elephants being poisoned," Walker says.
Many companies had stopped buying from Mercury, and last year, parent company APP agreed to clean up its environmental act. Now, some customers are talking about coming back, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe showed up last week at the firm's Strasburg, Va., headquarters to celebrate plans for expansion. Management presented him with a 12-pack of lavender scented Fiora toilet paper, and McAuliffe said he hoped to see exponential growth of the company during his term.
The World Wildlife Fund's Linda Walker fears that growth could be at the expense of more rainforest, and she's urging consumers to wait and see whether APP lives up to its promises.
"We are calling for independent verification of progress against those commitments along with a more specific commitment on restoration before we would feel comfortable saying that things have really changed on the ground," Walker says.
An independent group called the Rainforest Alliance is expected to report on APP's progress as early as September.