By Chris Lang
A new film produced by David Fedele documents the destruction caused by the logging industry in Sandaun Province, in Northwest Papua New Guinea. The film documents the social and environmental impacts of the logging. The Malaysian logging company, WTK Realty, makes large profits from the logging, but leaves serious problems for the local community.
Fedele’s film is well worth watching (a shorter, 24 minute “more journalistic version” is available here):
Here’s how one villager describes how the logging started:
“One day, some people came. They came with a pen and they showed us a book and they said, ‘You must sign’. But they would not sign it themselves. Either government workers or forestry officers, they themselves signed. Our fathers didn’t know because they had no education, why these people came and what they wanted to do. We were children so we were small, and didn’t know what our fathers were doing. Time passed and education has come, knowledge has come and grown and we now know the damage that the company is doing.”
While the destruction documented in the film is shocking, it should come as no surprise. In 1987, Judge Thomas Barnett chaired a Commission of Inquiry into the timber industry in PNG. The following extract from the Barnett Report has often been quoted:
“It would be fair to say, of some of the companies, that they are now roaming the countryside with the 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 the province’s valuable timber.”
The logging concessions in Fedele’s film were handed out in the 1960s when PNG was a colony of Australia. A company called Vanimo Forest Products, a wholly-owned subsidiary of a Western Australian firm, Bunnings Ltd, operated the concession. In February 1990, Bunnings sold the concession to WTK Realty, a Malaysian company, for US$13 million.
The timber from the Vanimo concession is exported, mainly to China, where it is sawn and processed and once again export. The main timber species exported is merbau, and according to Fedele, more than 50% of the merbau logged in PNG ends up in Australia.
Papua New Guinea should be a role model for REDD. Six years ago, at the UN climate conference in Montreal (COP-11), the idea of REDD was introduced by PNG’s then-Special Envoy and Ambassador for Environment & Climate Change, Kevin Conrad. Conrad has since been sacked. When he announced that Conrad would be replaced, PNG’s Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah was reported in the Post Courier as saying that “it is no good for someone who has few or no knowledge about the culture, tradition and lifestyle of the people and cannot understand and solve landowner issues in the country to represent Papua New Guinea.”
But the issue is not just that Conrad lives in the USA and not PNG. Six years of discussions about REDD have achieved little or nothing to address the destruction caused by the logging industry in PNG. While the names of the companies and the business men behind them have changed, Fedele’s film documents that the logging industry has not changed in any meaningful way since the Barnett Report.
In an interview with mongabay.com, Fedele outlines potential solutions to the problems created by the logging industry in Sandaun Province. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not mention REDD. He notes that two solutions are usually put forward: that the logging industry should leave PNG; and that countries should stop importing timber from PNG (leading to the logging companies leaving PNG). He describes both of these solutions as naïve:
“it is too naïve to think that if the company packed up their operations and left Papua New Guinea, all of the local people would go back to their traditional life back in their villages living off the land. The logging companies have created a situation where the local people are totally dependent on them for employment, transport and money, so I do not believe that the logging companies just leaving Papua New Guinea is the answer. This would leave people with an absolute dependence on money, but no way in which to obtain this money.
“It is also naïve to say that all logging should be immediately stopped in Papua New Guinea. We live in a world where there is a demand for exotic timber, and Papua New Guinea happens to be rich in this resource.”
Fedele proposes that “logging MUST be undertaken in a sustainable way, and the local people must benefit from these natural resources on their land.” He suggests that log exports should be banned and that timber should be processed in PNG providing opportunities for local employment.
Fedele may be right, but implementing this solution is by no means straightforward and he makes no suggestions about how this could be done. The exploitation that Fedele’s film documents has been going on for many years. The Barnett Report described the logging operations taking place in Vanimo back in the 1980s. The company was in breach of all environmental conditions. Barnett described “reckless felling”, “mass destruction”, and called one part of the concession a “disaster area”. Elsewhere in his report, Barnett wrote that,
“Even after the publicity given to forestry malpractices … the same practices are occurring, and often the same companies and individuals are involved.”
So the question is, can “sustainable” logging by regulated, and if so by whom? Voluntary certification systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council have existed for nearly 20 years without even beginning to address the destruction caused by logging companies in PNG (not least because they are voluntary – companies wishing to carry on business as usual are not affected by voluntary standards). The PNG government could, in theory, ensure that logging in the country was “sustainable”. But, as George Marshall wrote in an article about the Barnett Report published in The Ecologist magazine in 1990:
“[T]he Commission of Inquiry shows clearly that the timber industry in Papua New Guinea is effectively un-policeable, inherently corrupt, and beyond reform. As is so many other countries, the government gives the appearance of controlling what is effectively out of control; forest policy amounts to no more than window dressing for free market anarchy.
“It is vital that those endorsing and encouraging the timber industry, in particular the multilateral aid agencies, realize that the problems cannot be solved through more monitoring, administrative restructuring and incentives to companies.”
Fedele echoes Marshall, when he says in an interview with mongabay.com,
“The whole industry is corrupt from the highest level downwards. The entire system is broken, and people have no other choice than to participate in this system — it is basically an unregulated industry.
“I put the whole blame and responsibility on the Papua New Guinea Government. They have a duty to act for the people, on behalf of the people. The logging companies are the ones that are physically causing all of the problems, but they are only operating within a system that allows them to do basically whatever they want.”