When a four-part series of articles by Stefan Labbé of Glacier Media popped into my inbox recently, I was intrigued. Here was “a months-long investigation into Paper Excellence, a B.C.-headquartered pulp and paper company that has quickly grown to control (his word) large tracts of Canadian forests and become the largest company of its kind in North America.” I expected a well-researched, incisive piece backed up by links to credible sources and data. I was bitterly disappointed. 

We do get to learn some interesting stuff: the company’s sometimes obscure and complicated links with a sprawling Indonesian business empire that is today run by various members of the Wijaya family; and that some of the early (but not more recent) funding for its mill purchases in North America may have been arranged through the state-owned China Development Bank.

There are also all sorts of innuendos in between: that Paper Excellence goes to great lengths to conceal its private commercial transactions (so I suspect, does Glacier Media); that there is something wrong with shipping Canadian wood pulp to paper mills around the world (we have it, a lot of countries do not); and that Canada will somehow lose control of its forests (unlikely when the provinces and territories own 90% of them and set the rules for their harvesting).

But the chief aim of this investigative piece is to closely tie Paper Excellence to Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), “the forestry arm of the Sino-Indonesian conglomerate known as the Sinar Mars Group,” which happens to be run by the father of the owner of Paper Excellence. Why is this linkage important? Because APP has a chequered environmental and cultural history. Its recent past is littered with allegations of illegal logging, deforestation, and human rights abuses. So why wouldn’t Paper Excellence (now Canada’s largest forest company) be the same, the series implies, if it is linked to these same people and practices? Unfortunately for Mr. Labbé and Glacier Media, the case they make completely collapses.

Glacier Media was not alone in this investigative effort. Its partners included the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Halifax Examiner, Le Monde and Radio France and a bunch of other media, all part of what is called Deforestation Inc.: “a journalistic collaboration bringing together 40 media outlets in 27 countries to examine deforestation and greenwashing.”

Great idea. Deforestation is one cause of global warming, and it certainly needs to be addressed. But over 90% of the world’s deforestation is occurring in tropical countries: in Africa, South America, and Asia. And the major causes of deforestation are forest land that is removed for the growing of agricultural crops, for soy and palm oil, timber, pulp, or when it is cleared for cattle grazing and wood fuel.

Minimal deforestation in Canada

Very little deforestation is occurring in North America (where most of the Paper Excellence mills are). In fact, Canada’s overall deforestation rate is a mere 0.01% (49,000 hectares out of 362 million hectares). Forestry’s specific contribution (mainly through the creation of permanent forest access roads) is even smaller (0.0003%). It is a side issue, but if Glacier Media and all the others were really interested in deforestation, why aren’t they focussing on the major cause in Canada, the conversion of forest land to agriculture?

Major Causes of Deforestation in Canada

This ‘investigative’ piece somehow fails to mention these basic deforestation facts even though they are widely available through United Nations and Canadian government publications. It gets worse. When the author attempts to tie Paper Excellence directly to deforestation in Canada, he screws up badly, confusing deforestation with forest cover loss which is mainly driven by insect infestations (think the mountain pine beetle) and forest fires. Insects and beetles were responsible for a massive 78% of all temporary disturbances in Canadian forests in 2020, with forest fires responsible for 19 per cent.   

Forest cover loss is an umbrella term that includes all causes of forest loss whether natural or human: natural disturbances such as fire, insect infestations, and natural tree death; as well as human-induced disturbances like the conversion of forest land to agriculture and so on. Regenerating forest land is not part of it. The United Nations definition of deforestation specifically excludes “areas where the trees have been removed as a result of harvesting or logging, and where the forest is expected to regenerate naturally or with the aid of silvicultural measures.”

Logging is not deforestation

Logging by itself, then, is not deforestation, according to the world’s forest scientists. Only when the forest land is not regenerated as forest (that is, when it is converted to agricultural crops, mining, oil and gas projects, residential subdivisions, ski hills and golf courses) does it become deforested. And for those who remain convinced that logging is running rampant: 99.8% of Canada’s forest lands are NOT logged in any given year.

What we have here is an attempt to tag Paper Excellence with the nasty-sounding deforestation word without providing a single example of it. Nor is any evidence offered of Canadian convictions for illegal logging or human rights abuses. All we get are false and misleading claims about deforestation, and lots of innuendo. The cumulative result seems more like a smear campaign than the “investigative” journalism it proudly promotes itself as. Who is greenwashing who?