Papua New Guinea accused of ignoring illegal timber trade

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The pristine forests of Papua New Guinea are at risk of being wiped out through illegal and unsustainable logging by a timber industry mired in corruption, according to an investigation by a Washington-based think-tank.

Export documents validating the timber in effect "launder" illegally logged tropical hardwood, says a report by Forest Trends, a non-profit environmental organisation.

Government-appointed inspectors of Papua New Guinea's timber exports verify the quantity and description of the logs to ensure that export taxes are paid, but they give little heed to the legality of the timber operations themselves, with the result that the official documentation can give the impression that the wood was lawfully produced when it was in fact logged illegally, claimed Forest Trends.

"Thus, official export documentation merely launders the 'unlawful' timber into legitimately-produced exports accepted by governments and retailers worldwide," says the organisation's report.

Michael Jenkins, the chief executive officer of Forest Trends, said that a legal fund has been set up to fight the logging industry in the courts of Papua New Guinea, which harbours one of the most ecologically valuable tropical rainforests on Earth.

"The system must be fixed. The nexus between the logging companies and the political elite needs to be broken," Mr Jenkins said. "One of the ways to do this is to help local landowners better understand their rights and to establish a legal fund so that they can be defended.

"Papua New Guinea's legal system does exist outside of political control, and the courts have a track record of ruling against illegal logging," Mr Jenkins added.

Much of the forest industry in the country is focused on harvesting natural forest areas, for exports of raw timber logs. The Malaysian-owned timber operations export the logs primarily to China, Japan and Korea, where they are processed into products destined for Europe and North America. Mr Jenkins called on China to take a lead in ensuring that the timber it imports from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are from lawful and sustainable operations that are free from corruption.

"They should establish green public procurement policies, starting with a pilot programme to ensure that wood for the 2008 Beijing Olympics comes from verified legal sources," he said.

The Forest Trends report summarises five independent reviews of Papua New Guinea's forests conducted between 2000 and 2005, which were commissioned by the government in response to criticisms that logging operations were not providing long-term benefit to the nation.

The report covers 14 logging operations in an area of 3.17 million hectares with a population of 83,000 people. In 2004, these operations produced 1.3 million cubic metres of logs worth £44m in exports. "None of these 14 projects can be defined as legal and only one project manages to meet more than half of the key criteria set for a lawful logging operation," Forest Trust's report says.

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