Forests in countries in the South Pacific are being decimated by China’s hunger for timber.
The Solomon Islands, the second-biggest supplier of timber to China behind Papua New Guinea, exported more than 3 million cubic meters of timber to China in 2017, according to a recent report by environment group Global Witness.
In 2016, the Solomons exported a total of about 2.3 million cubic meters (about 812,236 tons) of timber, 82 percent of which went to China. Global Witness estimated that if logging activities were to continue at the current pace, the Pacific island nation’s natural forests will be exhausted by 2023.
Even if the current logging pace were reduced by half, these forests will be depleted by 2046. The report, citing several estimates, including one provided by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), determined that a sustainable rate of timber harvest should be about 250,000 cubic meters (about 88,286 tons) a year.
The Solomon archipelago, comprising more than 992 islands, has a total forest area of 2.2 million hectares (about 5.4 million acres), according to data from FAO.
“The Chinese companies that import most of the wood are so significant that if all of them together stop buying, there is still a chance to revert back,” said Yin Beibei, the head researcher who compiled the report, in a recent interview with Reuters.
Several Chinese companies were named in the report for being the main importers of Solomons’ timber. The Chinese company that imported the most in 2017 was China National Chemical Fiber Corp. (Sinofiber), a company solely funded by the state-owned enterprise China Hi-Tech Group Corp. The company imported roughly 480,000 tons of timber.
Ranked second behind Sinofiber was Jiangsu Wang Lin Modern Logistics, a Shanghai stock exchange-listed company, which imported about 260,000 tons of timber in 2017.
In other words, Sinofiber alone imported more than four times the sustainable rate at which the Solomon Islands should provide timber.
Global Witness’s investigation concluded that there’s a significant amount of illegal logging happening in the Solomons. Some logging companies cut down trees outside of their allocated areas, while others take protected or vulnerable tree species that are protected under UN conventions.
Two unnamed Chinese companies imported more than 400 tons of kwila logs—also known as merbau, a vulnerable species on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List—from the Solomons in 2017, according to the report.
The report also explained that locals have benefited little economically from logging activities. According to an unpublished 2015 report for the World Bank that was cited in an academic paper published by Australian National University, “all the 100 or so logging companies in the Solomon Islands report loss-making operations,” and thus avoid paying any corporate taxes to the islands’ government.
Locals have also been harmed by the environmental damage caused by logging activities, according to the report. Some loggers violate the Solomon Islands Code of Logging Practice, which includes regulations meant for environmental protection, such as forbidding the harvesting of woods near a stream or gully.
“The stream which provides us with a water supply is polluted with oil from dirty logging machinery and our pipe has been broken by falling trees,” Vezinia Danny, a resident of Kuzi, a village in the Solomon Islands, told Reuters in an October 2013 report.
“So now, we have to paddle our canoes for miles to get clean water.”
Two-thirds of all tropical timbers in the world go to China. As a result, the report recommends that China put mandatory measures in place “requiring all timber importers to carry out due diligence to ensure they do not import timber produced in violation of source country laws.”
China is one of the world’s major producers of wood products—especially furniture—and, thus, has a great demand for timber imports. China accounts for 40 percent of the world’s furniture production, according to The Center for Industrial Studies Milano.
Papua New Guinea
Global Witness published a separate report on July 30 about the logging situation in Papua New Guinea; roughly 70 percent of the country’s landmass is covered by forest, and it “sends almost all its log exports to China.” In 2017, Papua New Guinea shipped more than 2.8 million cubic meters (about 988,810 tons) of timber to China, the report said.
China’s high demand has fueled the presence of Illegal logging on the island country.
According to the report, “An assessment of legality risks in most of the world’s timber-producing countries found Papua New Guinea ’s timber to be among the riskiest, with potential illegalities including corruption and bribery in the issuance of permits, failure to follow the Logging Code of Practice, and logging without the consent of indigenous landowners.”
An example of corruption occurred with a local logging company, Vanimo Jaya. It paid $75,000 in bribes to Papua New Guinea’s forestry authority for extensions of its logging permit. It’s unclear whether this case involved Chinese entities, but what is certain is that China’s lack of regulations has given rise to illegal logging.
In the past five years, Papua New Guinea lost 640,000 hectares (about 1.58 million acres) of a forest, according to Global Witness.
A 2014 report from London-based think tank Chatham House indicates that 70 percent of logging in Papua New Guinea was illegal.
Sam Lawson, the author of the Chatham House report, stated that logging firms often collude with corrupt local officials.
“Powerful business people and corrupt politicians have been able to sell the communities short through fraud, bribery, and intimidation,” Lawson told conservation news website Mongabay in a 2014 report.
To stop illegal logging in Papua New Guinea, Global Witness urged China to enact mandatory requirements for Chinese timber imports to be sourced legally.
Gary Juffa, governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province, writing in Tokyo-based news magazine The Diplomat on Oct. 18, said that he believes corruption and tax evasion in the forest sector cost the nation over $100 million every year.
“While China protects its own environment, its behavior abroad is driving environmental devastation in countries like Papua New Guinea,” Jeffa wrote. He explained that because China has no environmental protection measures in place for its timber outsourcing, “illegally produced timber from PNG continues to feed China’s manufacturing sector.”
“I call on China to keep illegal timber out of its markets—and help Papua New Guinea forests remain standing,” Juffa wrote.