BEN DOHERTY | The Guardian
SYDNEY - Millions of tonnes of illegally logged timber, felled from forests across Papua New Guinea, are being exported to China and from there to the world as finished wood products, a new report from Global Witness has revealed.
Global Witness’s investigation has found that the majority of logging operations in PNG are underpinned by government-issued permits, which are often illegally “extended” and which fail to enforce laws surrounding logging in prohibited and ecologically sensitive areas.
“An assessment of legality risks in most of the world’s timber-producing countries found PNG’s timber to be among the riskiest, with potential illegalities including corruption and bribery in the issuance of permits, failure to follow the logging code of practice, and logging without the consent of indigenous landowners,” the report says.
“It is essential for buyers of PNG timber to understand that the existence of an official, valid permit is not a guarantee of the timber’s legality.”
The Global Witness report argues that illegal logging in PNG not only destroys irreplaceable and ancient rainforests but also poses serious reputational and trade risks to China, by exposing its timber sector to commercial and legal sanctions, including import bans.
The EU timber regulation and the US Lacey Act outlaw the import of products made with timber not cut in accordance with the laws of the producing company.
“PNG is China’s single largest supplier of tropical logs ... the US and EU, in turn, are China’s largest markets for its plywood and wood furniture exports. While China has not yet banned the import of illegal timber, the US and EU have.”
PNG is one of the latest signatories to China’s one trillion dollar belt and road initiative, and its economy is increasingly entwined in Chinese expansionism throughout the Asia-Pacific.
One-quarter of all of PNG’s debt is owned by China and Beijing has announced agricultural and transport projects worth several billion dollars across the developing nation.
The countries’ links are particularly tight in timber. PNG is China’s single largest supplier of tropical logs, and sends almost all of its felled timber to China: 2.8m cubic metres of PNG timber was imported into China in 2017.
About 70% of PNG is covered by forest, and the majority of the developing country’s 8 million-strong population depends directly on the land for sustenance, livelihoods and cultural practices. Almost all – 97% – of the land in PNG is customarily owned, and the PNG constitution guarantees the right of the people to control their lands “for the benefit of ourselves and posterity”.
But PNG has lost 640,000 hectares of forest to logging in the past five years, and 3% of its total tree cover since 2000.
The issue of illegal logging has been consistently exposed in PNG over decades, most prominently by the Barnett commission in 1989, which documented widespread illegalities and corruption in the forestry industry.
Subsequent reviews found the majority of logging operations have been undertaken in breach of the law.
“The scale of the PNG-China timber trade, the risks around it, and the importance of forests to the people of PNG make it critical to manage these resources responsibly and legally,” the Global Witness report argues.
“Instead, PNG’s forest sector has been plagued for decades by allegations of corruption and lawbreaking, characterised by a systemic failure to protect communities’ interests and indigenous land rights.”
PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, has repeatedly promised to crack down on illegal logging, in particular on the abuse of the special agricultural business leases granted to commercial operators over indigenous land and which have resulted in widespread clear-felling.
“Our government has already cancelled all the SABL licences,” O’Neill said last year. “It is the agencies of government who are supposed to be doing their job, who are not doing their job. I’ve told landowners who are complaining about SABL licences to throw the developers out.”
Global Witness found evidence that another form of government-approved logging permit, timber rights purchases, have been extended in exchange for payments to the PNG Forestry Authority of PGK250,000. There is no provision in PNG’s Forestry Act to extend these purchases.
PNG will host the APEC summit beginning on 3 August. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will attend the event.