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Papua New Guinea hosts APEC meeting on illicit timber trade while allowing illegal loggers to destroy its forests

22 Feb 2018

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The Papua New Guinean (PNG) government has disregarded a decision by its Supreme Court and allowed loggers found guilty of flouting PNG law to continue operating, new research by Global Witness reveals. The revelations came as APEC countries met in Port Moresby, February 24-25, to discuss measures to tackle illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber. Global Witness is calling on the PNG government, this year’s APEC host, to show leadership on the issue by following through on past commitments to shut down illegal logging operations.

“Hosting the 2018 APEC Summit is a historic moment for PNG, but this risks being overshadowed by land grabbing and deforestation driven by the government’s failure to enforce its own laws,” said Lela Stanley of Global Witness. “The PNG government has been promising for years to crack down on illegal logging but continues to turn a blind eye while its forests are raided by foreign logging interests.”

New Global Witness analysis of satellite imagery and export data reveals loggers have recently extended a major forest clearance operation declared illegal by PNG’s Supreme Court. The Court ruled in August 2016 that a land lease used as a pretext to clear forest in East Sepik Province was invalid, and that any associated logging and oil palm development was illegal. It found that the logging operation violated the legal rights of indigenous communities to their land and forests by failing to gain their consent.

However, the PNG government failed to stop the logging, and in February 2017 its National Forest Board quietly granted a new forest clearance permit to the Malaysian loggers responsible, allowing them to continue cutting down the same forests. Global Witness’ findings show that by the time the new permit was issued around 930 km of logging roads had been built and logs valued at roughly US$65 million exported under the illegal operation. In 2017, more than 70 km of new roads were added and at least US$5 million of timber exported under the new permit.

“We were elated when the Supreme Court delivered justice to communities that had their land and timber stolen, but our government has taken it away by refusing to stop the logging,” said Augustine Mondu, a community activist in PNG. “People are suffering as the forests and rivers they depend on are destroyed.”

PNG has made headlines in recent years for the widespread abuse of land leases like the one in East Sepik, which are known as Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs). These SABLs have been the main vehicle by which companies have stripped land from indigenous communities and cleared rainforests illegally. One third of the wood exports from PNG, the world’s largest exporter of tropical logs, have come from the leases in recent years.5

Nearly all of PNG’s logs are exported to fellow APEC member countries, with 88% going to China. Last year, Global Witness published a report, Stained Trade, linking wood cut in PNG under SABLs to wood flooring made in China and exported to the U.S. The investigation found that companies along the supply chain in China were doing little to nothing to check the legality of wood coming from PNG. This puts U.S. importers and sellers at risk of violating the Lacey Act, a U.S. law prohibiting the sale of wood produced in violation of source country laws. The EU, Australia, South Korea and Japan have also passed laws to curb the trade in illegal timber imports, but China has yet to do so.

“Our investigations following the wood show how the illegal logging crisis in PNG extends beyond its borders. As the destination for most of PNG’s log exports, and the world’s largest timber importer, China has a responsibility to lead on efforts to ensure illegal timber is kept out of international markets. APEC countries should agree a timetable for passing laws to ban the imports of illegal timber. ” Stanley said.

The PNG government included the East Sepik SABL on a cancellation list announced in the local news in early February 2018, but locals say logging has not stopped. Global Witness wrote to PNG’s Prime Minister and the companies involved requesting comment and received no response.