Ian Duff, campaigner at Greenpeace, argues that Sinar Mas has failed in their attempts to discredit the NGOs recent investigations of the company
Last week saw Sinar Mas, one of the largest conglomerates in Indonesia, come to London for a press conference to try and 'turn the tables' on two years of Greenpeace investigations into their deforestation practices.
The palm oil producer came to explain that they are a responsible company, that they don't destroy rainforests and how the likes of Unilever, Nestle and Kraft had been mistaken to suspend them from their supply chains.
They claimed a new 'verification exercise' would prove Greenpeace has got it wrong.
As one of the campaigners working on deforestation at Greenpeace, I went along to the press conference, held on Wednesday this week in London and organised by Bell Pottinger - the notorious PR and lobbying company who recently represented Trafigura in the recent African toxic waste scandal.
As predicted, rather than lay down the facts of their audit that showed that Sinar Mas had indeed cleared important forest and carbon rich peatlands, Sinar Mas and Bell Pottinger went on a spin offensive.
In the end it backfired as some savvy journalists cut through the waffle with their questions.
Amongst all the rhetoric it eventually became clear that Sinar Mas were trying to communicate a number of things.
Firstly, they announced that the audit had cleared them of clearing 'primary forest'.
The problem with this is that, well, we'd never accused them of clearing 'primary forest'.
We had accused them of clearing rainforests, mapped orang-utan habitats and mapped peatlands - but never 'primary forest'.
One journalist made a point out of this and asked for Sinar Mas to clarify what they meant by ‘primary forest’.
The answer was later confirmed in a press release and appeared to define tropical rainforest as primary rainforest.
Now these are quite different things. ‘Primary forest’ is forest totally untouched by human activity whereas tropical rainforest is any forest that grows in the tropics and experiences a specific (high) amount of rainfall.
By confusing the two Sinar Mas has been able to say that because they haven’t cleared primary forest they haven’t cleared rainforest and are innocent of Greenpeace’s charges despite trashing non-primary rainforest and mapped orangutan habitat.
How did the auditors fall for this?
Then, secondly, they claimed that they're not responsible for the destruction of orang-utan habitats.
How they could have known this is unclear because the audit revealed that in at least seven out of eleven concessions visited clearance had begun before an independent High Conservation Value assessment had been completed.
Now these assessment are, amongst other things, meant to identify orang-utan habitats and so this begs the question - if they hadn't done an assessment how could they be so sure that they hadn't cleared any?
The final highlight came after a particularly severe interrogation from one journalist.
She asked whether Sinar Mas has been disingenuous to spin Reuters, Bloomberg and other wires the headline 'Sinar Mas operates responsibly and within the laws' when the audit clearly shows that Sinar Mas had begun clearance without required environmental permits - in breach Indonesian law.
At first Sinar Mas denied this but eventually admitted that yes they had broken the law but wouldn't be doing so in the future.
My Chinese colleague emailed this morning saying that this reminded him of a local proverb 'only lift up a stone, to have it fall on your feet'. That's starting to look quite appropriate here.
Proverbs help with context but they won't save Indonesia's rainforests.
For that to happen companies, like Cargill, need to follow in the footsteps of Unilever, Nestle and Kraft and suspend all palm oil buying from Sinar Mas.
Meanwhile if the Indonesian government doesn't step in soon to stop companies like Sinar Mas trashing forests and peatlands they'll risk having their recently announced forest protection measures (financed through a billion dollars from Norway) end up as nothing more than business as usual.
Ian Duff is a forestry campaigner at Greenpeace. Ian.Duff@greenpeace.org
Ethical Corporation invites Sinar Mas to respond and offers a right to reply on these pages.