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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11

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A region in the grip of logging

Spotlight

JN JEREMY GWAO IS A JOURNALIST BASED IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS; JOSH NICHOLAS IS A DATA JOURNALIST FOR GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA; KATE LYONS IS GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA’S PACIFIC EDITOR

If Solomon Islands continues logging at its current rate, natural forests in the country will be exhausted in 15 years. The South Pacific nation, and its neighbour Papua New Guinea, are striking examples of the enormous cost of the logging industry on small island nations. In the last few decades, foreignowned companies have moved in to the Pacific region, clearing huge swathes of lush forest, exporting vast quantities of timber and sometimes leaving environmental devastation and social destruction in their wake. Papua New Guinea (PNG), the largest exporter of wood products in the Pacific, exported 3.3m tonnes of wood – equivalent to 326 Eiffel Towers – in 2019, a haul worth US$690m – 90% of these logs are exported to China. But even as forests are destroyed, Pacific countries are often not receiving the full value of their resources. For decades the forestry industry in Papua New Guinea has declared just a few million dollars in profit each year on hundreds of millions in revenue. An investigation by the Oakland Institute found that some timber companies had, over decades, reported losing $15 for every dollar in declared profits. Across the Solomon Sea in the village of Naórua on the island of Malaita in Solomon Islands, local Houka Kaiasi remembers the island where he grew up as one surrounded by green forests. Kaiasi left Naórua in 2012. When he returned in 2020 he found devastation. “It was like a doom that covered my village. The beautiful home … was disappeared. I never thought I would see a land filled with dried ground, reddish-coloured mud all over, on sites that used to be … green forests. The land [was] covered with rejected machines and unwanted logs.” Large-scale commercial logging started there in the 1980s and the country has been hooked ever since. For decades, Solomon Islands has been logging at an unsustainable rate. A sustainable harvest rate was calculated as 325,000 cubic metres a year in the early 1990s. In 2017 Solomon Islands exported more than 3m cubic metres of logs. Almost 7% of the country’s tree cover has been lost since 2000, and the Ministry of Finance says that if logging continues at its current rate, natural forests will be exhausted by 2036. The country exported more than 2m tonnes of timber in 2019. This accounted for more than 60% of the country’s total exports that year, according to Guardian Australia analysis, and the logging industry is one of the country’s largest employers. “Logging has been a great revenue for Solomon Islands and it has a lot of good impacts for schools, health and others,” says Dr Edgar Pollard, coordinator of the Mai-Ma’asina Green Belt conservation area. “It is like lifeblood – biggest earner in our country – and we [can] hardly cut it out.” In Naórua, the influx of cash from logging has helped it develop. There are good roads now, he says, and people have built houses. But Pollard also compares the country’s reliance on the logging industry to “a drug that the country [is] depending on”. The archipelago is covered in logging roads, which environmental groups warn make forests accessible for poachers and illegal loggers. And many communities never see the benefits. A 2013 study, for which hundreds of people across different Solomon Islands provinces were interviewed, found agreements between logging companies and local landowners are often not upheld, as promises about infrastructure and employment are not written into contracts. In May, Sam Koim, the commissioner general of PNG’s Internal Revenue Commission, announced his office was investigating 20 logging companies operating in PNG over tax compliance. “The best outcome is prosecuting the people who exhibit or entities that exhibit clear examples of criminal conduct. We literally want to put people behind bars, that’s all. They can easily pay monetary penalties, they’re just proven to be not working.” In Naórua, a survey was done to establish land ownership. But logging has jeopardised many sources of food and the village is dependent on rainwater for drinking. Kaiasi says damage to food gardens means many families can only grow enough to fill a single pot a day. Oil has got into fishing areas and the mangroves have been destroyed. It has also caused division between communities in what “used to be the happiest society”. One country dominates the Pacific’s resources extraction. Guardian analysis of trade data has revealed China received more than half the total tonnes of seafood, wood and minerals exported from the region in 2019, a haul worth $3.3bn that has been described by experts as “staggering in magnitude”. The country’s mass extraction of resources comes as China deepened its connections with governments across the region, amid a softpower push rivalling the influence of the US and Australia in the Pacific. China took more by weight of these resources from the Pacific than the next 10 countries combined, with experts saying China “would easily outstrip” other countries, including Australia, when it comes to “gross environmental impact of its extractive industries”. Data analysis reveals the extent of China’s appetite for Pacific natural resources. In 2019, China imported 4.8m tonnes of wood, 4.8m tonnes of mineral products, and 72,000 tonnes of seafood from the Pacific. The next single largest customer for the Pacific’s extractive resources was Japan, which imported 4.1m tonnes of minerals, 370,000 tonnes of wood and 24,000 tonnes of seafood. Australia imported 600,000 tonnes of minerals, 5,000 tonnes of wood and 200 tonnes of seafood. From Solomon Islands, more than 90% of extractive resources go to China when measured by weight. And China regularly claims more than 90% of the total tonnes of wood exported by Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Beyond direct imports of resources, data from the American Enterprise Institute shows more than US$2bn was invested by Chinese companies in Pacific mining in the past two decades. China is the Pacific’s biggest customer whether measured by weight or US dollars. But Australia is close behind when measured in value – $2.8bn to China’s $3.3bn in 2019. This is due to the fact many extractive products are heavy but relatively inexpensive, like wood. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Palau all regularly send more than 90% of their wood exports to China. China’s size doesn’t explain this concentration, as it takes less than 10% of the wood exported by Malaysia, a much larger producer. Malaysian companies also dominate logging in PNG and Solomon Islands. According to some estimates, illegal timber makes up as much as 70% of logs exported from Solomon Islands. “Logging is nothing but gigantic cancer that eats a lot of our resources and [leaves] us nothing behind,” says Benjamin Kenitou, who used to work as a mechanic for a logging company on Malaita. Richard Hamilton, the Melanesia programme director for the Nature Conservancy, says when problems arise it is due to the volume of logging, as well as an inability to follow best practices. “In some of the areas … you have repeat logging in the same place. You might have an area that was first logged in the 70s and now they’re back for the fourth cut. You can do sustainable forestry. But in the Solomons, communities are relatively cash poor. So there’s a lot of pressure to go back in earlier than ideal from an ecological or even a financial standpoint.” But there isn’t much incentive to log in a more sustainable fashion. Dr Stacy Jupiter, the Melanesia regional director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, says there are companies that do practise sustainable logging and whose products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the gold standard in the industry, but there isn’t a supply chain to ensure they are compensated for it. “They are a model of how logging could be sustainable,” she says. “Unfortunately, they are barely profitable, if at all, they do not receive premium prices for their FSC-certified product, and products produced from the FSC-certified wood ultimately aren’t even marketed under a sustainability label, as the companies up the value chain do not have sustainability practices in place.”

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