Originally published on August 21, 2008 in the Globe and Mail by Konrad Yakabuski.


My own printer eats paper the way Michael Phelps downs pasta. Left to its own devices, it might have already consumed most of Canada’s boreal forest.

In lieu of putting it on a diet, I’ve been feeding it Rolland Enviro100 produced by Quebec-based Cascades. It’s made entirely from old newspapers that are de-inked and turned into pulp at a mill in Ste-Hélène-de-Breakeyville. The pulp is transformed into snow-white printing paper at a plant in St-Jérôme. That facility derives most of its energy from biogas piped in from a nearby garbage dump.

Rolland Enviro100 also bears the label of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a global certification scheme aimed at promoting sustainable resource management. It actually lives up to its environmentally friendly hype.

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I ran out recently and, in a pinch, dashed to my local Jean Coutu. The pharmacy stocked only one brand of printing paper – bearing the logo of Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and stamped Made in Indonesia. The Asian product cost half as much as the Cascades stuff, which is produced within 50 kilometres of Montreal.

Were the APP paper to reflect its true environmental cost, though, its price would soar. Global conservation groups have fingered APP’s activities in the Indonesian province of Riau as one of world’s worst examples of deforestation and environmental degradation. In the face of such evidence, U.S. office supplies giant Staples, whose private label paper had been made by APP, this year axed the contract.

No matter, the man who runs (and whose family controls) APP just got named the most powerful person in the global paper industry. Teguh Ganda Wijaya’s number one-ranking on the RISI Top 50 Power List (compiled by the forest sector’s leading data and information provider) confirms Asia’s rising dominance and the increasing irrelevance of once-powerful Canadian players.

APP defaulted on its $14-billion (U.S.) debt in 2001. But that’s history. The Wijaya family (whose net worth is $2.8-billion, according to Forbes) aims to make APP the world’s biggest pulp and paper producer. It’s already risen in no time to third biggest, with a capacity of 15 million tonnes, mostly in China and Indonesia.

Mr. Wijaya is not alone. Half of the top 10 spots on the list produced by San Francisco-based RISI belong to Asians. There are two Americans, a Finn and a Brazilian. The only non-company player in the top 10 is Heiko Liedeker, who until recently served as head of the FSC, the agency that oversees the globe’s most stringent environmental certification scheme.

The list itself is a neat example of the double standard that exists in the global forest industry. The rising players, inevitably based in the developing world, have the poorest environmental records. Neither their governments nor most of their clients (that’s you, Jean Coutu) seem too concerned about that. That’s one of the reasons APP printing paper sells for a fraction of the price of the Canadian stuff.

The top “Canadian” on the RISI list is the American-born chief executive of Montreal-based AbitibiBowater. Dave Paterson is in 12th spot – a ranking that stems entirely from Abitibi’s status as the world’s biggest newsprint producer. But Mr. Paterson’s got environmentalist Richard Brooks, in 14th place, nipping at his heels – and in more ways than one.

The Toronto-based Mr. Brooks runs the forest campaign at Greenpeace Canada. He’s been a stick in the side of Mr. Paterson (and his predecessor John Weaver), prodding the company to seek FSC certification for the millions of hectares in Ontario and Quebec where it continues to log. Abitibi has continued to resist, insisting its certification under the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is proof enough of the sustainability of its operations.

Abitibi’s got better eco-credentials than APP. But that hardly matters when you’re held up to different standards. There’s already evidence that Abitibi, which lost a cool half billion in the first half of the 2008, is scaring off customers in Europe – a market the company has been counting on to make up for the inexorable decline of newsprint consumption on this continent.

In a way, Mr. Brooks is doing Abitibi a favour. The future of the Canadian forest industry depends on its ability to establish its products as the hands-down ecologically superior choice. It does not lie in trying to beat the Asians or the Brazilians based purely on commodity prices. That’s a recipe for a not-so-slow death.

Abitibi still hasn’t figured that out. Bernard, Laurent and Alain Lemaire – the brothers who control the much healthier Cascades and who hold down the 39th spot on the Power List – did a long time ago.