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Cedar planks are stacked at a lumber yard in Montreal on April 25, 2017.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Jackson Widjaja doesn’t want to talk about the family business. As he bought up forestry assets across Canada in recent years, the grandson of Indonesian tycoon Eka Tjipta Widjaja insisted he has no connections to the company that made the clan’s fortune: Asia Pulp & Paper.

Like that company, Jackson’s Richmond, B.C.-headquartered Paper Excellence Group has built itself into a regional pulp and paper giant, acquiring mills and smaller companies across Canada. But, his representatives say, blood is the only connection between the corporate entities.

“We don’t collaborate. We don’t do anything,” Patrick Loulou, Paper Excellence’s vice-chair and chief strategy officer, told The Globe and Mail last year. “They’re complete strangers, as far as I’m concerned.”

Mr. Widjaja does not give interviews. APP and its parent company, Sinar Mas, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

One of Jackson’s cousins once told an interviewer that “family names are traded carefully.” This isn’t just modesty. The many offspring of the elder Mr. Widjaja, who died in 2019 at the age of 98 and married at least six times, learned this the hard way. Their family’s immense wealth, estimated at around US$10-billion today, put them among the Asian elite, but it also tied them to one of the continent’s biggest ever defaults, when APP was unable to pay back debts of nearly US$14-billion in the early 2000s.

Then there’s the company’s decades-long history of environmental damage.

“They’re the worst company in Indonesia for forest destruction, probably the worst in the world,” said Grant Rosoman, Greenpeace’s global forests solutions senior adviser, who has done extensive work on Indonesia, Sinar Mas and APP. “The magnitude is monstrous, and human rights abuses are massive as well. That’s the sort of company we’re dealing with.”

Reporting by The Globe stretching back over a decade, as well as an extensive investigation by Greenpeace and other environmental groups published last October, suggests that Paper Excellence’s ties to APP/Sinar Mas go beyond the fact that the latter companies are run by Jackson’s father, Teguh Ganda Widjaja.

APP helped purchase Paper Excellence’s first asset in Canada, and the two firms remain intertwined through a network of shell companies and entities headquartered in offshore jurisdictions characterized by high levels of corporate secrecy. The Canadian government’s own Inter-corporate Ownership database – “the most authoritative and comprehensive source of information available on corporate ownership” – also lists Paper Excellence as a subsidiary of Sinar Mas.

Further reporting for this story turned up numerous other apparent ties between Jackson Widjaja and APP, particularly in China. These include a charity based in Shanghai, where his father was made an honorary citizen in 2022, which was founded by Jackson and features a board made up entirely of APP bigwigs. Several bond and note offerings issued on behalf of APP China also list Jackson’s Chinese name, Huang Jiesheng, as a company executive, and he is referred to as such in Chinese media reports.

As this story was going to print, Le Monde and the Halifax Examiner, in association with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, published more articles – based on testimony from an unidentified Paper Excellence whistle-blower – showing further links between APP and Paper Excellence.

Already the biggest producer of pulp and paper in Canada when the Greenpeace report was released last year, Paper Excellence was seeking approval from Canada’s Competition Bureau to buy Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products Inc. This would give it control of around 20 per cent of the industry’s 20.7 million tonnes of annual capacity.

The company operates seven mills in Canada and a large cargo distribution centre on the West Coast, producing and shipping 2.5 million tonnes annually with a work force of more than 2,200.

Despite objections from environmental groups, the Competition Bureau signed off on the sale, provided Paper Excellence sell two Ontario mills after the merger closes. The Competition Bureau is concerned about the business environment within Canada and doesn’t have the scope to really look into the company’s alleged ownership back in Indonesia.

That’s not the case when it comes to organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organization that certifies companies that manage forests “in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers” while ensuring “economic viability.”

According to FSC’s database, numerous Paper Excellence sites are certified. This is in stark contrast to APP, from which the FSC disassociated in 2007, citing “substantial, publicly available information that APP was involved in destructive forestry practices.” While APP has been trying to get recertified ever since, negotiations have stalled over requests for greater transparency into APP’s corporate structure, concerns that may also be raised regarding Paper Excellence in future.

Such certification can be vital for selling products to big retailers who might be concerned about public backlash if they are tied to alleged deforestation. After a Greenpeace campaign in the early 2010s, APP was ditched by multiple major customers, including Kraft Foods, Unilever PLC and Staples Inc., with the latter describing the Indonesian company as a “great peril to our brand.”

A spokesperson for FSC said it had evaluated Paper Excellence’s ownership “multiple times,” most recently in 2021, and was satisfied it was sufficiently separate from APP. However, the spokesperson noted, a new policy was introduced at the beginning of this year that “expands on the scope of unacceptable activities and focuses on the exercise of control by corporate groups over the commission of unacceptable activities.”

Mr. Rosoman, the Greenpeace researcher, said under the new policy, “the FSC doesn’t just look at an individual company any more, it looks at the corporate group.”

“If APP affiliates are breaching requirements in Indonesia, that could trigger Paper Excellence being kicked out of FSC in Canada,” he said.

That would undo all of the Canadian company’s work to distance itself, publicly at least, from its alleged Indonesian parent, Sinar Mas.

Sinar Mas dates back to 1938, when a young Eka Tjipta Widjaja founded a company that sold palm oil and other commodities in Makassar, on the coast of the Java Sea, in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province.

Mr. Widjaja’s family had emigrated there from China when he was seven years old, and as a young man he worked as a bicycle salesman, saving enough money to launch his own company. His nascent business was devastated by the Second World War, when Japan invaded and occupied Indonesia. But Mr. Widjaja’s fortunes revived with the coming to power of General Suharto, who ruled the country as dictator from 1967 to 1998.

“Even though he only graduated from elementary school, for him there was no hope and ideals that were too high,” a Sinar Mas history says of Mr. Widjaja. “The philosophy of honesty, maintaining credibility and being responsible, both toward family, work and social affairs became his life’s compass.”

Taking advantage of Suharto’s pro-business policies and drawing on connections built with other Chinese Indonesians, Mr. Widjaja moved into palm oil, launching Sinar Mas, which quickly grew into a sprawling conglomerate. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, the company expanded into property, banking and, most lucratively, pulp and paper.

“Once I decide to do something, I will pursue it at any cost in time or money to make it successful and profitable,” Mr. Widjaja once said.

APP, then known as Tjiwi Kimia, was founded in 1972. It took over mills across Indonesia and China, with the aim of becoming “the number one global pulp and paper company in the 21st century,” the company says.

The company continued growing, and its shares boomed on the New York Stock Exchange when it listed there in 1994. That same year, Mr. Widjaja moved the company to Singapore, an apparent hedge against a Suharto-less future, as the dictator, then in his 70s, began looking increasingly shaky and many Chinese Indonesians feared they would be targeted were he to fall.

Mr. Suharto would eventually be taken down by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, but one of the continent’s largest companies appeared to initially shrug off the economic meltdown. APP continued issuing bonds and buying up new mills, even announcing plans to pay US$378-million for a Canadian property in 2000, a deal it later had to back out of at the cost of US$20-million.

The bottom layer of the house of cards had begun to shake, however, and after a drop in pulp prices, APP defaulted on debts of nearly US$14-billion the following year.

While the company’s stock price sank to nothing and it was eventually forced to delist from the New York and Singapore stock exchanges, APP weathered the storm, hanging on to most of its physical assets and gradually restructuring the debt over the next decade, often buying back bonds for pennies on the dollar.

“In a functioning legal system, that would have been the end of APP, as bondholders would have taken charge of its assets in the wake of default and liquidated them,” writes Joe Studwell in Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. “But for Eka Tjipta Widjaja and his family in Indonesia, it was game on.”

A flamboyant character, Mr. Widjaja was known for flaunting his wealth, wearing a diamond-encrusted belt buckle spelling out his name, Eka. He was also a notorious womanizer, with multiple wives and mistresses. In 2002, when APP was in the midst of fending off vengeful creditors, Mr. Widjaja sued a 26-year-old woman in Singapore, seeking the return of around $700,000 he had lent her to buy a flat where they could “meet more discreetly.”

By the time Mr. Widjaja died in 2019, he was rumoured to have more than six wives – polygamy is legal in Indonesia – and at least 40 children, as well as countless grandchildren. Today, the family is Indonesia’s third-richest, with an estimated fortune of US$10.8-billion, according to Forbes.

That money is not equally shared across the vast family tree, and shortly after Mr. Widjaja’s death, one of his illegitimate sons unsuccessfully sued three of his half-siblings over the inheritance, seeking stakes in Sinar Mas and its subsidiaries. Today, the companies are largely controlled by the children and grandchildren of Mr. Widjaja’s first wife, Trini Dewi Lasuki, including their first-born, current APP chairman Teguh Ganda Widjaja, father of Paper Excellence CEO Jackson Widjaja.

Family members in the business remain close. Linda Widjaja, daughter of Teguh and sister of Jackson, told Nikkei in 2019 that Sinar Mas “operates more like a family council.” There is a WhatsApp chat group “for the entire big Widjaja family,” and another “for those involved in the family business to co-ordinate about strategies and synergies, and fix overlapping plans and conflicts,” Ms. Widjaja said.

A former APP executive said the entire corporate group is “family-owned, every nook and cranny,” and members of the family take a close interest in the day-to-day running of the various businesses. The Globe is not identifying the executive as they are not authorized to discuss the company publicly.

Beyond family and financial drama, APP and Sinar Mas have also become notorious for deforestation. Greenpeace and other groups have long documented alleged illegal logging and clearances, in Indonesia and China, as well as alleged human-rights abuses against tribal communities living in rural Indonesia.

Occasionally, this has seen the company slapped by regulators, such as when Chinese authorities fined it in 2005, or a backlash in Singapore over APP’s alleged involvement in clearance fires choking the city state in haze. The worst came in the 2010s with the boycott of APP by major brands including Kraft and Staples, which purged the company’s products from their supply chains.

APP responded with a PR onslaught, promising to stamp out bad behaviour and launching a host of environmental initiatives. In a publicity coup, it managed to partner with one of its main antagonists, Greenpeace, to advise on and certify its efforts.

But in 2018, the environmental group broke with APP, saying that the company had failed to properly reform and its various pronouncements “cannot be trusted.”

“APP is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Sergio Baffoni, co-ordinator of a campaign by the Environmental Paper Network (EPN) to protect Indonesia’s rain forests, said at the time. “For years they have pretended to be a green champion, but their commitment to forest conservation and social responsibility remains empty words. Conflicts, intimidation and violence continue to ravage communities living in the areas exploited by APP and its suppliers.”

A subsequent investigation by a coalition of Indonesian NGOs showed that following the PR backlash to its deforestation, APP simply spun off many of the firms involved in clearances, or hid their ownership in a web of shell companies. Similarly, APP’s ownership and its control of pulp mills around the world spans multiple jurisdictions, including the Netherlands, Malaysia and Brazil, according to research by Greenpeace.

“That’s their modus operandi – they do this around the world,” said the former APP executive. “They put the company in someone else’s name and they become a front, so legally you can’t say they’re linked.”

In Canada, Paper Excellence’s now public links to APP and Sinar Mas do not appear to be slowing its expansion. In January, it announced plans to invest $50-million in restarting operations at a mill in Crofton, B.C., with roughly 40 per cent of funds coming from governments. The following month, U.S. regulators signed off on the Resolute deal, which was finalized on March 1.

Paper Excellence describes itself as a “global leader in sustainable pulp and paper” and touts its products environmental credentials compared with plastic alternatives. As well as creating thousands of jobs across Canada, the company says it is “committed to conducting business in a manner that protects the environment, conserves resources, reduces its environmental footprint and ensures sustainable development.”

“We think that our track record as a good corporate citizen speaks for itself,” Paper Excellence told The Globe earlier this year. But this good behaviour may yet come to nought if the FSC and customers decide the Canadian company should not only be judged by its behaviour in its home market, but how its alleged parent company operates in Indonesia and the rest of the world.

With files from Brent Jang and Nicolas Van Praet

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