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Is China’s timber from Papua New Guinea illegal?

China, as the main destination for Papua New Guinea’s timber, could help tackle illegality in the island country's forestry sector with stricter enforcement, according to a new report from environmental watchdog Global Witness.

Papua New Guinea’s timber industry is plagued by illegality, including lax enforcement of forestry laws, the misuse of logging licenses and the sidelining of local communities, according to a new report by the watchdog NGO Global Witness.

But China, as the largest export market for timber from Papua New Guinea (PNG), could help catalyze seismic improvements to the country’s forestry sector, said Lela Stanley, a policy analyst with Global Witness.

“If China were to enact some kind of measure prohibiting the import of illegal timber, that would force some really dramatic changes in PNG across the board,” Stanley, who wrote the report, said in an interview.

What’s more, she added, the companies that buy wood from PNG — where nearly one-third of China’s tropical timber comes from — are putting themselves and their customers, notably in the United States and the European Union, at risk of trading in illicitly sourced products.

In an analysis combining timber statistics and satellite data, Global Witness found evidence that much of the timber harvested in PNG could be considered illegal. Forests cover more than 70 per cent of PNG, and they’re vital to the livelihoods of most of the 8 million Papua New Guineans, as well as host to many plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Global Witness’s investigators found that companies can circumvent the provisions in PNG’s 1991 Forestry Act, using much older licensing mechanisms not designed to ensure sustainable forest use, improperly gaining access to valuable timber species, and harvesting timber from environmentally sensitive areas with impunity.

Around 40 per cent of the timber that PNG exports comes from “timber rights purchases” (TRPs), a type of agreement in which landowners rely on the government to negotiate the terms of the harvest. TRPs can have terms of more than 40 years, according to Global Witness’s research, and some even predate the country’s independence in 1974.

The contracts underpinning TRPs lay out the quantity of timber that companies can take from a specific area within a given time period. But, Stanley said, “They weren’t designed to be sustainable logging operations. For instance, concession holders aren’t required to adhere to a minimum span of years between harvests, a stipulation that’s part of newer arrangements.”

To increase the sustainability of the timber sector in PNG, the authors of the 1991 Forestry Act intended to phase out TRPs in favor of projects with stronger sustainability considerations.

If China were to enact some kind of measure prohibiting the import of illegal timber, that would force some really dramatic changes in PNG across the board. 

Lela Stanley, policy analyst, Global Witness

But if that’s the case, then why have TRPs stuck around — so much so that they account for such a large proportion of the country’s exports?

“What we’re seeing is that some [TRPs] have been extended, apparently in violation of the law,” Stanley said. “Nowhere in the Forestry Act does it allow for the extension of the timber rights purchases themselves.”

The Global Witness team unearthed documentation showing that the Forest Authority, the country’s forest management agency, approved two TRPs held by a PNG-based company called Vanimo Jaya in 2016 for a period of three years. Global Witness said that the term of the TRPs “had expired years earlier.”

In a separate instance, satellite image analysis revealed that Wawoi Guavi Timber Company, which is owned by Malaysia-based Rimbunan Hijau, had on numerous occasions built roads that were wider than allowed, or were located in or near wetland areas, all of which violate the Forestry Act, Global Witness said.

Neither Vanimo Jaya nor Rimbunan Hijau responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment on these findings. However, Rimbunan Hijau did send a written statement to Global Witness.

“Rimbunan Hijau always welcomes engagement from interested parties,” the statement says. “However, in this case, all allegations raised by Global Witness are again without foundation.”

The company said it monitored these activities on the ground in collaboration with the National Forest Service.

It also called into question the accuracy of Global Witness’s analysis.

“Remote sensing does not allow widths of roads and buffer zones to be identified with any degree of certainty,” a company representative wrote. “Remote Sensing cannot also [sic] allow boundaries of swamp forests to be identified or dissected as per the logging code.”

Stanley said Rimbunan Hijau was “simply incorrect.” Scientists have used images taken by the Landsat satellite to keep tabs on logging activity in Southeast Asia and the Amazon for more than a decade, and they’ve published their analyses in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“We can see the illegal activities in question directly on the imagery,” Stanley said.

The Forestry Act created forest management agreements (FMAs) as a type of concession that was designed to be “more sustainable,” and to some degree, it incorporated safeguards to protect the rights of local landowners, Stanley said.

Just how sustainable is questionable, however, as the standard 35-year cutting cycle the FMAs prescribe doesn’t give forests enough time to recover, she added.

Satellite images also show that the PNG-based company Cakara Alam had logged a higher proportion of forest in West New Britain province than was allowed between 2014 and 2015. The company also harvested timber from buffer zones along streams and on steep slopes, contravening PNG’s Logging Code of Practice that’s meant to reduce the environmental impacts of logging. Between 2006 and early 2018, Cakara Alam also logged 144 square kilometers (56 square miles) of forest from atop sensitive karst limestone, violating the Forestry Act.

“We categorically deny any operational mal-practice or breach of Forestry Act and do not accept your allegations being your report is inconclusive and no credible facts to support your accusations,” Cakara Alam said in a written response to Global Witness. (No one from the company replied to Mongabay’s invitation for comment.)

TRPs and FMAs are designed around the principles of natural forest management. But in 2000, a change to the Forestry Act allowed what are called Forest Clearance Authorities (FCAs). Ostensibly, the government issues FCAs to enable agriculture companies to make way for plantations. But because they’re easier to get than FMAs, they’re also used as a shortcut, Stanley said.

“They’re widely regarded as a workaround, a simpler way to access valuable timber,” she said.

The government has typically granted FCAs to companies that held SABLs, which is short for “special agriculture and business leases.” Despite the apparent intent of creating space for large-scale food production, Global Witness reports that, in some years, nearly a third of PNG’s timber exports have come from SABLs, making their use controversial. A 2011 investigation by the government concluded that almost all of the country’s 42 SABLs should be rescinded or the terms renegotiated. But according to reporting by Radio New Zealand in early 2018, only 10 have been canceled.

FCAs have also been linked to allegations of logging without landowner permission. One FCA was recently issued to a company called Northern Forest Products, which is headquartered in PNG. The agreement for 420 square kilometers (162 square miles) in Oro province was contested by the province’s governor, Gary Juffa, because he said local landowners hadn’t signed off on the project.

In a 2018 Facebook post, Juffa wrote, “It is apparent that this so called agriculture project is a mere scam for ILLEGAL LOGGING.”

Around the same time, Tunou Sabuin, the managing director of the Forest Authority, recommended that the FCA in Oro be revoked because it hadn’t included the required public consultations.

A few months later, Sabuin walked back his remarks and said the FCA should not be canceled.

Stanley said this and similar instances demonstrated the lack of political will “to crack down on these violations at any level of government,” as well as an example of the challenges that landowners faced.

“[Among] landowners, there’s a strong sense of disillusionment with the way the country’s laws are being upheld and not a lot of hope that landowners’ rights will be protected versus companies’ interests,” she said.

Peter Bosip, the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), a nonprofit based in a suburb of Port Moresby, the capital, said he agreed with the report’s findings.

“The conclusion by Global Witness that all timber from PNG should be treated as high-risk is not exaggerated nor an assumption,” Bosip said in an email to Mongabay.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.

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