Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Asia's pulp and paper giants - which supply materials for stationery, tissues and toilet roll - are being urged by environmentalists to follow the palm oil industry in stepping up collaboration to tackle forest loss and fires in Indonesia.

Singapore's APRIL Group and its main rival Indonesia's Asia Pulp & Paper Group, both with operations largely on Sumatra island, are working with local communities and using technologies like satellite imagery to protect forests on their concessions and prevent fires.

Many parts of Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest tropical forests, are blighted by deforestation and fires, which green groups blame on land clearance by the paper and pulp, palm oil and timber industries, as well as farmers.

Air pollution caused by annual forest fires this year was the worst since 2015, according to the World Resources Institute, a US-based environmental thinktank.

Technology is becoming an essential tool to curb destruction of Indonesia's vast forests, viewed as crucial in the fight against climate change as trees store planet-warming carbon.

Earlier this month, ten major palm oil companies teamed up on a new radar system to monitor forests.

Elim Sritaba, chief sustainability officer at APP, which has government licenses to develop 2.5 million hectares, about a quarter of which is forest area set aside for conservation, said the company had "very strong" security patrols but some of the land was hard to access.

APP, one of Asia's largest makers of paper and pulp, started to think in 2016 about how it could use technology to monitor its land, she said.

It has teamed up with a Canadian firm to deploy a system that uses algorithms and satellite images to generate and send alerts if deforestation occurs on its concessions, said Sritaba.

Once an alert is received, APP sends a team to investigate and initiates an action plan if needed.

In areas judged to be under threat from deforestation, the company tries to help local people farm land without burning it, or find new sources of income that do not rely on logging.

"We cannot say there is no deforestation within our concession because of the challenges still there," said Sritaba, citing illegal logging and encroachment by communities.

Competitor APRIL, whose products are exported to more than 70 countries, has worked with villagers since 2014 to raise awareness of the impacts of unmanaged burning and air pollution.

The firm has close to 450,000 hectares of plantations and 370,000 hectares of forest under protection or restoration.

Fire hot-spot alerts tend to cluster around the boundaries of corporate concessions where there is public access, rather than inside them, as well as on land whose ownership is disputed, said APRIL's sustainability director Lucita Jasmin.

Fire-free villages are rewarded with grants to build infrastructure, and the scheme also supports education and village-based fire prevention teams, she said.

"Collaboration is essential to achieving a fire-free landscape," she added.

Palm oil companies, APRIL and green groups also set up the Fire Free Alliance in 2015 to share knowledge and best practice for stopping forest fires. APP is not a member.

"We don't see the same joint moves in the pulp industry," which is far more consolidated than the palm oil industry in Indonesia, said Brihannala Morgan, a senior campaigner at US-based environmental group Rainforest Action Network.

Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said the two pulp and paper giants should return some of their land rights to the state to shrink their concessions to a manageable size, and work to restore fire-prone peatland.

The use of technology to monitor deforestation would only achieve results if pulp and paper companies become more transparent and publish their plans, he added.

Accurate data was needed so that supply chains could be properly monitored, enabling consumers "to avoid commodities linked to deforestation, fire, land grabbing and social conflicts", he said.