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Asia Pulp and Paper Company and Modern Protest Movements

The price of protest in the modern world can be very low or very high.  If you are an American unhappy with President Obama, it costs very little to sign an online petition asking that your state be allowed to secede from the Union.  On the other hand, if you are a Russian journalist investigating government or corporate corruption, the fee for protest may include imprisonment, exile, or even death.  A common theme of most protests, however, is that they tend to fail, at least with regards to achieving their main objectives in a timely manner.  How long have environmentalists been railing against the perils of climate change, and how much closer are we to a global emissions pact? 

The deck is stacked against most protests.  Policies exist and corporations flourish because they are backed by constituencies with political and economic power.  Further, the act of protest can sometimes entrench dominant interests.  One wonders if Japan and Norway would still be whaling if not for all the pressure exerted on them from the United States and other rich nations.  The fight becomes emblematic, an issue of sovereignty rather than a matter of species and habitat preservation.

All of this underscores the response to Asia Pulp and Paper Company’s (APP) promise to stop producing products with pulp from old growth forests in Indonesia. APP had been under assault for a number of years from green pressure groups – including Greenpeace’s (in)famous Ken and Barbie stunt at Mattel headquarters. APP had announced last year that it would stop cutting forests on company owned land.  On February 5, the company announced that it would also stop accepting non-plantation wood from its suppliers starting this month, as opposed to a previously announced goal of 2015.

Environmentalists have been skeptical of past pledges by APP, but then new moves have the backing of some the company’s most vocal critics.  Not only is APP promising that its products will not do further harm to the dwindling natural forest in Indonesia – one for the most diverse ecosystems on the planet – APP will allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor and audit their supply chain and report on whether the company is adhering to the new policies. 

As the Wall Street Journal points out, in making what appear to be concessions APP had direct corporate experience on which to rely. In 2011, APP’s parent company – Sinar Mas Group – had another subsidiary subject to protest and negative publicity.  Their palm-oil company was accused of deforesting natural lands to build new plantations.  The company lost important accounts and viewed the ongoing controversy as a threat to its business.  Their commitment to stop deforestation was viewed favorably enough by NGO observers that customers who had severed ties with APP returned. 

Is this a new age of protest, a wave on the order of abolitionism, temperance, or civil rights?  Perhaps social media, and information technology more generally, help activists to turn casual supporters of causes into electronic advocates.  Certainly it is easier to gather names for a petition or provide feedback to political officials and corporations than ever before.  Likewise cell phone cameras and other communications devices turn ordinary folks into “citizen journalists” who can catch bad actors and bring them negative publicity with viral videos or online exposés. 

But along with increasing connectivity, the modern world also exhibits an ever declining collective attention span.  For protest movements, this is a significant hurdle.  APP was a target for years, and activists not only picketed the company directly, they also went after APP’s customers, drawing negative attention to Mattel, Disney, and KFC.  Even if you do not approve of the methods or the message, the APP protesters deserve credit for creativity, doggedness, and tenacity.  APP is off the hot seat for the near future, what forest products company will protesters turn their attention to next?


Travis holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the Lyndon B. Johson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA.  He resides in Golden, Colorado, USA.


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