Australia's Promotion of Logging Papua New Guinea Condemned
By Bob Burton
CANBERRA, Australia, March 15, 2002 (ENS) - Support by an Australian government agency for a Papua New Guinea (PNG) trade fair promoting the logging industry has angered environmentalists but been welcomed by the timber industry’s peak lobby group.
The seminar, which opens next Tuesday in the PNG capital Port Moresby, is being organized by the PNG Forest Industry Association (PNGFIA) in an effort to counter the loss of key markets and promote overseas investment in a logging industry mired in controversy.
In conjunction with the seminar, the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) is organizing a forestry trade fair to “showcase Australia’s leading products and services applicable to the forestry industries” and is a member of the seminar organizing committee. Other sponsors include timber industry equipment suppliers Stihl and Hastings Deering.
Papua New Guinea contains the world’s third most extensive tract of forests with nearly all of it held as customary land by the country’s five million people. Eighty percent of its people use forests, which cover more than 60 percent of the land area, for timber and non-timber products.
The advocacy group PNG Forest Watch, charges that logging is damaging the ability of communities to gain access to clean water and gather traditional foods and medicines. “It is the local people who are suffering, a human population that already has the lowest quality of life in the Pacific region,” the group says.
With the depletion of the forests elsewhere, PNG’s forests are attracting interest from major industrial logging companies.
According to Dick McCarthy, executive director of the PNG Forest Industry Association, $US270 million worth of forest products are exported from the country, most of it as raw logs shipped to Japan and China.
One company, Malaysian owned Rimbunan Hijau, accounts for approximately 60 percent of all exports, he said.
McCarthy welcomes the support of Austrade. “Australia is really looking at establishing those trade links back into the industry because Australia is a big market for sawn timber from PNG,” he said.
But McCarthy declined to reveal details of Austrade’s support to the timber industry association seminar. “That is a silly question … I know that is extremely sensitive to Australia,” he said.
The Australian Government’s Trade Commissioner for PNG, Michael Boyle, insisted that while Austrade is organizing the trade fair they are not sponsoring the event. Details of the costs incurred for the event, he insisted are “commercially confidential.”
While Austrade is keen to promote a greater role for Australian companies in the PNG forest industry, the Australian government’s own overseas aid agency, AusAid, has expressed deep misgivings about funding forestry projects in PNG.
In a report on the current four year aid program, Ausaid stated “management of forests is a particular concern."
"Continued Australian support for forestry projects will be dependent on the PNG Government implementing policies that address the longer term social and environmental costs of logging,” Ausaid said.
Boyle refused to comment on whether Austrade’s support for the logging industry despite opposition by Ausaid reflects the agency’s view that concerns about environmental and social impacts are misplaced.
The PNG Eco-Forestry Forum describes Austrade’s support for the logging fair as “disappointing and hypocritical.”
“It is very disappointing when we see overseas governments who could help PNG out of its current crisis, support the very source of our distress,” they said in a statement.
Lee Tan, who is Asia-Pacific coordinator for Australian Conservation Foundation, believes Austrade’s support undermines the efforts of those seeking to reform the timber industry.
“It will further frustrate non-government organisations, local communities and other sectors of the PNG civil society who have been working hard to reform and restructure the logging industry. PNG is going to suffer more - socially, environmentally and economically from half-baked projects like this support for the FIA,” she said.
With the dramatic escalation of the rate of logging over the last 20 years, accusations of mismanagement and corruption over timber concessions have proliferated. In 1988, PNG Justice Barnett undertook a Commission of Inquiry into the forest industry. While the inquiry was under way Barnett himself was stabbed almost to death and the records of the National Forest Authority were destroyed in a fire.
In his damning report he wrote that some of the logging companies “are now roaming the countryside with self assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out, and export the last remnants of ... valuable timber.”
The current Prime Minister, Mekere Moratu, acknowledged the problem while introducing his first budget in late 1999. “Governance has been particularly poor in the area of forestry with the side effect of promoting corrupt practices and undermining environmental sustainability”, he told Parliament.
In April 2001, a World Bank independent review team investigating forest management reported that the PNG Forest Authority was “incompetent at almost every level of the forest management process.”
Greenpeace has been working with PNG villagers to encourage eco-forestry and discourage industrial logging. A woman from Aewa village told Greenpeace workers, "After the bush was destroyed, landowners raised their complaints but six policemen came with guns. Villagers fled into the bush in fear of losing their lives. Police threatened to shoot both men and women to protect company’s operation on their land."
Arnold Kombo, a community leader in Nangumarum, East Sepik Province, told Greenpeace, "They were doing logging where so much destruction was done with trucks making feeder roads. There was destruction like trees cut down unnecessarily, small trees and vegetation cleaned up, eventually leaving the land barren and then having grasses growing instead of trees. In places the water sources became dry and people had to go so far away to look for water."
McCarthy of the Forest Industry Association believes the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against the timber industry are exaggerated. “I just think it is a total over exaggeration." he said. "There is various hype around at the moment because some of the vested interests are unhappy with some of the decisions that have been made.”
“The major problem with the forest industry in PNG is not the forest industry," said McCarthy. "There are vested interests from the NGOs and the consultants who work for the donors who make sure that you leave PNG in a state of continual perplexity and ... never allow anything here to develop rationally because that keeps certain people in work,” he said.
The Eco Forestry Forum hopes that in the wake of the controversy over the trade fair, the Australian Government will re-assess its role. “We urge the Australian government to back out of the loggers trade fair and to come up with some concrete plans to constructively engage in positive support for forestry reform,” they said.
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