Pacific islanders try to foil Asian loggers

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GALVANISED by the grinding exploitation of their forests and fisheries by Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries, the leaders of 15 South Pacific nations agreed yesterday on a last-ditch campaign to save some of the world's remaining rainforests from extinction.

Francis Hilly, Prime Minister of the former British colony of the Solomon Islands, described what had happened to his country, where all commercial timber will have gone in 15 years unless logging is stopped: 'Ravaged forests, polluted water supplies and coral reefs covered in silt.'

Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, who hosted the leaders, said it was the last opportunity to do something about the Pacific's rainforest crisis. 'Unless the environmental piracy of foreign logging companies operating in the South Pacific is controlled, the future . . . will be bleak.'

Meeting in Brisbane for a summit of the South Pacific Forum, the government leaders agreed to impose tighter controls on foreign logging and fishing companies and to adopt urgently new monitoring standards on the Pacific's natural resources.

The Forum's members range in size from Australia and New Zealand to the small island states of Melanesia and Polynesia, such as Niue (pop: 2,300). Once fabled for their tropical paradise images, many of these island states are now facing an economic and environmental crunch. Their populations are growing faster than their economies, unemployment is rising and their fledgling, and sometimes corrupt, governments have failed to deliver services and infrastructure.

The island states have become rich pickings for their booming Asian neighbours. The greatest concern in Brisbane centred on the world's largest surviving rainforests in Melanesia. They are rapidly disappearing under a stampede of foreign, mainly Malaysian, companies seeking new timber supplies after almost logging out similar forests in Sabah and Sarawak.

In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the rate of logging extraction has trebled in the past three years and now far exceeds sustainable levels. Greenpeace has traced almost 90 per cent of foreign timber concessions in Papua New Guinea to Rimbunan Hijau, the giant Malaysian company which is active elsewhere in the Pacific. The company has set up a second daily newspaper in Papua New Guinea.

Like similar companies, it has offered isolated landowners roads, schools and other services in return for access to their resources. But the overall losses to the country are devastating.

One Solomon Islands community was paid dollars 2.70 ( pounds 1.76) a cubic metre for logs which were then resold on the world market for dollars 350 a cubic metre.

An official Australian report, released in Brisbane, said that some Pacific countries were losing the equivalent of half their national incomes through unmonitored, undeclared, under-reported and under-priced logging exports.

In Papua New Guinea's case the losses were equal to Australia's annual aid to the country of Adollars 327m ( pounds 157m).

The picture is similar for the Pacific's other big resource, fishing, which provides about 40 per cent of the world's catch. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan dominate foreign trawling. The returns to the island countries are less than dollars 50m a year from a catch worth about dollars 1.5bn.

Mr Hilly announced yesterday a moratorium on new logging licences in the Solomon Islands, following a similar move by Vanuatu. Australia agreed to take over Adollars 2m of the Solomon Islands' debt in return for a ban on further logging by a Malaysian company in the Marovo Lagoon, one of the Pacific's most outstanding areas, which is under consideration for aWorld Heritage listing.

Greenpeace officials at the forum said the Pacific faced serious threats from rising sea levels and dying coral reefs, both of which they attributed to global warming.

(Map omitted)