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Corruption Threat to Pacific Island Forests

March 21, 2016
Source
IPS-Inter Press Service

Catherine Wilson 

CANBERRA, Australia - 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.