Corruption Threat to Pacific Island Forests
– The vast rainforests of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean are crucial for environmental sustainability, survival of indigenous peoples and the wider goal of containing climate change. But forest degradation, driven primarily by excessive commercial logging, most of which is illegal, is a perpetual threat.
PNG is now the world’s top exporter of tropical timber, estimated at 3.8 million cubic metres in 2014. But an estimated 90 per cent of the formal trade in wood-based products from the country and 85 per cent from the Solomon Islands are illegal, reports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Eighty per cent of log exports from PNG are exported to China, the world’s main destination for illicit timber.
On the International Day of Forests, observed on March 21, Pacific Islanders spoke of why fighting for the future of their rainforests is also a struggle against fraud and crime.
Samson Kupale of the PNG Eco-Forestry Forum, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in the capital, Port Moresby, told IPS that lack of compliance and enforcement of the logging code of practice is a major issue.
“Trees are being cut in prohibited zones, logging occurs beyond surveyed areas….community obligations [by logging companies], such as roads and bridges, are not built to standards,” he declared.
PNG is one of the world’s largest tropical rainforest nations with an estimated 29 million hectares covering about 75 per cent of its landmass. Neighbouring to the east, the Solomon Islands has 2.2 million hectares of forest covering 80 per cent of the country, considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to contain ‘globally outstanding biodiversity.’ More than 80 per cent of the population of both countries resides in rural areas and forests are essential sources of food, fresh water and materials for shelter.
But industrial logging has escalated with the immense demand for raw materials by emerging Asian economies. Land clearance for other uses, such as agriculture and plantations, now contributes further to high timber export volumes.
The monitoring of logging operations, which are mostly conducted in remote rural locations, can be a serious challenge for forestry authorities in developing countries. Recently, the London-based Chatham House rated PNG 25-50 per cent for level of forest governance.
Professor Simon Saulei of the PNG Forest Research Institute said that, amongst other factors, “the [forestry] authority is not effectively addressing and responding to such issues [of logging non-compliance] due to insufficient manpower and other resources, including funds.”
Inadequate law enforcement further undermines PNG’s strong forestry legislation, according to Chatham House.
Meanwhile, the US-based Oakland Institute recently claimed in a new report that there are strong indicators of widespread transfer pricing in the country with the potential loss of US$100 million per year in tax revenues. Despite the rapacious appetite for timber extraction by foreign investors, the majority claims that they have made little or no profit over the past decade and, thus, avoided paying 30 per cent income tax on profit, the report details.
“In any business venture, if you cannot make any profit from whatever you are doing then it makes no sense to continue and you might as well close up or do something else profitable. Here one can only ask where are they getting the money to continue their respective operations?”, Professor Saulei probed.
In the Solomon Islands, the situation is now critical where, after decades of commercial logging peaking at seven times the sustainable rate of 250,000 cubic metres per year, accessible forest resources are nearing exhaustion.
Half the forests on Kolombangara Island in the country’s northwest are now degraded after 50 years of voracious extraction while local landowners have battled against illegal loggers in the courts for years.
Timber trafficking depends on the agency of government, forestry and customs officials; the actions, often involving bribery and patronage, of people in critical positions throughout the production and supply chain. Crooked collusion between foreign logging companies and political elites is acknowledged as a serious barrier to industry compliance.
“There are government ministers, provincial ministers who are agents of these loggers and they exercise undue discretionary powers over the granting of logging concessions,” Ruth Liloqula, Chair of Transparency Solomon Islands, told IPS, adding that loggers also “have undue influence over the politicians not to pass relevant legislation in this sector.”
Misconduct in public office, according to the nation’s leadership code, includes business associations which could lead to conflicts of interest with public duties. However, the Leadership Code Commission, which is mandated to hold leaders accountable, is “under-resourced and the penalties are too small,” Liloqula claims.
Another problem, she said, is that logging companies, rather than the government, now pay the costs of timber rights meetings where decisions are made about logging proposals.
“Even when the evidence is heavily on the side of the objectors, the decision is [often] in favour of the side supported financially by the loggers,” Liloqula said.
The fate of forests is being decided at the local level, too. More than 80 per cent of land in the Solomon Islands is under customary ownership and negotiation between logging companies and traditional landowners for access to land can be flawed. ‘Middle men’, or individuals within communities who do not have the traditional authority, are known to sign-off logging agreements in return for sweeteners, Liloqula confirms.
Yet educated informed rural communities play a significant role in environmental justice. In 2012, landowners from Western Province in PNG, supported by the Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights, achieved a victory in the national court following legal action against Malaysian logging company, Concord Pacific. It was found to have cleared a vast tract of unauthorised forest either side of a road construction project and fined US$97 million for environmental damage associated with the wrongful extraction of an estimated more than US$60 million worth of timber.
“This win was an important moment for the environmental NGO movement in PNG and sends out a clear message that destructive logging is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Kupale emphasised.