The State Forestry Administration (SFA) Wednesday accused one of the world's leading paper makers with illegal tree felling in the southwestern province of Yunnan, and vowed to punish anyone found responsible.
"The investigation is not yet finished, but we have established that illegal logging took place in an APP project. We believe that both APP and local governments are responsible for the violation," said Wang Zhuxiong, deputy director of the SFA's Forest Resources Management Department, in Beijing.
"We welcome and encourage overseas investment in the forestry sector, but never at the cost of the environment," he added at a national conference held to announce a crackdown on illegal deforestation. "No violator will escape punishment when our investigation is completed."
If its role in the scandal is confirmed, the Asia Pulp & Paper Co (APP), a Singapore subsidiary of the Indonesian-based Sinar Mas Group, could become the first foreign venture punished for environmental violations in China, where anyone convicted of illegal deforestation faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The SFA's announcement came four months after Greenpeace accused APP of "vandalizing China's forests" in Yunnan last November. APP has since faced boycotts initiated by Chinese environmentalists.
Greenpeace submitted a report to the SFA saying that APP, which launched a "wasteland forestation program" in Yunnan three years ago, was actually cutting down virgin forests, as only 20 percent of the 1.8 million hectares covered by the project was real wasteland.
The report prompted the SFA to dispatch a task force to investigate the case. They found that more than 24,700 cubic meters of timber was logged without government approval, according to Wang.
In response to the charge, an APP spokesperson told Xinhua that while negotiating with the government of Yunnan on the project, the company had only targeted wasteland. He added that the provincial government welcomes APP's investment.
The SFA investigation also discredited a previous report from Yunnan Provincial Forestry Department released earlier this year, which claimed that it was local project contractors and farmers who cut down natural forests.
"How could the farmers themselves initiate such massive logging?" said Wang.
A Yunnan Provincial Forestry Department official telephoned by Xinhua yesterday refused to comment.
Zhong Yu, a Greenpeace campaigner based in Beijing, said that the organization appreciates the government's efforts, and hopes the SFA can continue its investigation into APP's work in Yunnan.
She said the Yunnan project was only one of APP's many programs in China and that the government should also keep a close watch on the others.
APP owns 13 pulp and paper companies and more than 20 plants in China, with gross assets of US$5.5 billion.
Zhang Feida, a member of the Beijing-based environmental group the Blue Sky Society, said he hoped government intervention and consumers' boycotts can eventually save unlogged Yunnan forests in the APP project's area.
Zhang, a university student, and other campus environmentalists in Beijing initiated a boycott against APP on Monday evening, calling all students and faculty members to reject APP products.
(Xinhua News Agency March 31, 2005)