Corrupt Indonesian military officers and international criminal syndicates are looting the forests of Papua, New Guinea, turning the world's third largest rainforest into a multi-billion dollar stream of illicit timber between Indonesia and China, new undercover research has found.
A report published Friday by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of Washington and London, and the Indonesian group Telapak, details undercover meetings with illegal loggers, traders and timber buyers that reveal exactly how the forests of New Guinea are being stolen and who is profiting by the theft.
Remote Papua province forms the western part of the Pacific island of New Guinea. This island contains the world’s third largest tropical forest wilderness, exceeded only by the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin.
With about 70 percent of its forest cover still intact, New Guinea still contains the last large stretches of undisturbed forest in the Asia-Pacific region, where 95 percent of the frontier forests have already been cut. But the Papua forest is rapidly disappearing, the trade driven by demand for a dark, luxurious looking wood called merbau.
M. Yayat Afianto of Telapak said, "Papua has become the main illegal logging hotspot in Indonesia. The communities of Papua are paid a pittance for trees taken from their land, while timber dealers in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong are banking huge profits."
Posing as traders, EIA/Telapak investigators contacted a number of merbau log traders in Jakarta, China and Hong Kong.
"Sipping tea in the lobby of a five-star hotel overlooking Hong Kong bay, one such trader enthused about the money to be made in the merbau business, and spoke openly of the methods used to smuggle the illegal logs out of Indonesia, including the precise bribes paid to officials," the investigators report.
"He reckoned that around 60 large cargo vessels, each carrying around 10,000 cubic metres of merbau, arrive in China from Papua every year. They are accompanied by fake Malaysian paperwork including Certificates of Origin, Bills of Lading and Phytosanitary certificates."
EIA/Telapak investigators found that powerful syndicates pay around US$200,000 per shipment in bribes to ensure the contraband logs are not intercepted in Indonesian waters, as Indonesia currently bans the export of logs.
Julian Newman of EIA, co-author of the report, said, "Indonesia and China signed a formal agreement over two years ago to cooperate in tackling the trade in illegal timber. So far these words have not been matched by actions."
Five years ago Nanxun, China had only a handful of flooring factories. Now there are more than 500 factories being supplied by over 200 sawmills cutting only logs a dark hardwood known as merbau.
Every minute of every working day the Nanxun factories process one merbau log into flooring.
Much of this flooring finds its way to consuming countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Merbau trees grow in lowland tropical rain forest, often in coastal areas bordering mangrove swamps, rivers and floodplains. Merbau once had a wide distribution stretching across Southeast Asia as far as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, and some Pacific Islands, but heavy exploitation has led to commercial stands surviving in only three countries – Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
The EIA/Telepak report found that merbau is being smuggled out of Papua to China at a rate of around 300,000 cubic meters of logs every month. China’s economic boom has led to it becoming the largest buyer of illegal timber in the world.
The majority of merbau logs stolen from Papua are destined for the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang, near Shanghai, where they are cleared through customs using false Malaysian paperwork to disguise their true origin, in violation of Chinese law.
The profits are large as local Papua communities only receive around US$10 for each cubic meter of merbau felled on their land, while the same logs fetch as much as US$270 per cubic meter in China.
The military in Papua are involved in every aspect of illegal logging, the report says.
Several forestry concessions in the province are linked to military foundations, notably the company Hanurata, which controls five concessions in Papua and shares its headquarters in Jayapura with a detachment of troops from the army’s special forces.
Military personnel often are employed as security for logging operations. One timber dealer based in Jakarta told EIA/Telapak investigators that he had 30 soldiers on his payroll to secure his illicit forest concession. The army is also used to intimidate local communities opposed to logging operations on their lands.
Newman and Arbi Valentinus, Telepak's head of Forest Campaign, say the new Indonesian government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pledged tough action against corruption and the timber mafia.
In the past four years, a host of governments have made concerned pronouncements and signed declarations and agreements to tackle the problem of illegal logging, yet little has been done.
There have been "glimmers of hope," the report said. "Some cross-border seizures of illegal timber have occurred, including record hauls in Malaysia and the UK."
The listing of ramin wood, Gonystylus spp., a valuable blond hardwood native to Southeast Asia, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has been "genuinely effective," the report says, "empowering customs officials to intercept stolen wood in at least seven countries.
Indonesia’s log export ban, coupled with Malaysia’s reciprocal import ban, has dramatically reduced the flow of illegal timber between the two countries.
"It is now time to draw a line in the fight against illegal logging," write Newman and Valentinus. "Time to hold the governments that pledge strong actions to account. Time to go after the timber bosses responsible for the destruction. Time for real enforcement cooperation between nations to halt the scourge of illegal logging. The forests of Indonesia and all those dependent on them cannot wait any longer."
"The smuggling of merbau logs between Indonesia and China violates the laws of both countries, so there is a clear basis for action," said Newman. "Concerted effort by both governments is needed to put the smuggling syndicates out of business."
The EIA and Telepak recommend that the governments of Indonesia and China hold urgent talks to agree an Action Plan to implement the bilateral agreement on illegal logging and associated trade which both countries signed in 2002. This should include the formation of a task force to counter illegal trade in merbau.
They would like to see the government of Indonesia immediately begin a high-level enquiry into the timber barons organizing illegal logging in Papua, including military and official involvement.
And following official identification of the culprits, the two organizations says the key timber barons and officials involved in illegal logging and associated trade should be prosecuted.
The government of China should instruct its Customs General Administration to check the veracity of documents accompanying all shipments of merbau logs claiming to be from Malaysia. They should seize merbau log shipments from Indonesia and prosecute those involved, the report advises.
The wood consuming countries have a part to play as well, the report says. Timber consumers in China, North America, Europe and Japan should stop buying merbau flooring or wood products and purchase only wood products independently certified as legally and sustainably sourced.