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How China Can Help Save Papua New Guinea’s Forests

October 18, 2018
The Diplomat

By Gary Juffa

This summer, my country, Papua New Guinea (PNG), became the newest member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This global program already spans dozens of countries and represents over a trillion dollars of planned investments in infrastructure development. Meanwhile, China’s aid to PNG is surging: only recently, it committed around $4 billion to developing PNG’s national road network. These initiatives mean that bilateral trade is set to increase — but if China does not make significant changes in the way it sources raw materials abroad, the outcome is likely to be a bad one for PNG.

PNG’s forests are among our most valuable natural resources. Some 70 percent of the country is covered in forests that support hundreds of rare and endemic species, making PNG a “megabiodiverse” country. These forests are also directly critical to the lives and well-being of most of our people, including the communities in my province. But for decades, we’ve struggled to responsibly manage this vital resource. The PNG forest sector has long been marked by corruption and illegality, making the timber we produce considered “high risk” by independent international groups that monitor this. And we’re losing money on it: the policy think tank the Oakland Institute has estimated that tax evasion in the sector may be costing PNG over $100 million per year.

Despite these problems, PNG exports a lot of timber — over 3 million cubic meters of logs in 2017. Most of that wood is already bought by China, where it is made into commodities like furniture and flooring. Research from the watchdog group Global Witness showed that some of these products are ending up in places like the United States. Although China doesn’t have a law that bans the import of illegal timber, the United States and other major markets like the European Union do, making this trade a risky one for China. In fact, China is falling behind other major economies in not enacting such a law, and continuing to source risky timber from corrupt states around the world.