One of the most explosive books ever written about forest destruction and corruption in the logging business has its UK launch at about the time this article is posted. And there is every chance the event will create fresh fears for sections of the tropical timber industry.
We first brought timber+DESIGN readers’ attention to the book Money Logging by historian/campaigner Lukas Straumann in November. It is a shocking tale about Sarawak’s lost rainforests and identifies the Malaysian state’s billionaire Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud as the alleged kingpin of an ‘Asian timber mafia’.
Amid claims that nearly 95% of Sarawak’s intact forest is already gone, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has described it as, “Probably the biggest environmental crime in our times.”
Initially, the Taib family’s British lawyers tried to block the book’s international release by threatening the world’s oldest publisher and online retailers such as Amazon with “substantial losses” if they distributed the publication.
But after an original German language printing by Salis Verlag of Zurich in 2014, the English edition hit the bookshelves on 3 November – followed almost immediately by widespread political, legal and environmental outrage.
Although Amazon UK was initially criticised for withholding deliveries, when timber+DESIGN checked in early January the book was readily available through various online outlets, including Amazon, and through Australian bookstores.
But all is far from plain sailing for Straumann, who is also executive director of the non-profit Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) in Basel, Switzerland. A planned publicity event around the recent 50th session of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) in Yokohama, Japan came unstuck when the Malaysian delegation succeeded in having BMF locked out because it planned to display Money Logging in the conference foyer.
ITTO council chairman Rob Busnik confirmed the Malaysian delegation had orders “from the highest levels of government in Kuala Lumpur” to stop the presentation of the book.
The next major ‘launch’ of Money Logging is at the Free World Centre in London on 16 January, with a public debate involving speakers from the UK, Malaysia, Switzerland and the US. Straumann has also challenged Taib, a former Chief Minister of Sarawak, to explain his wealth at the same event.
Obviously stung into action by allegations in Straumann’s book, on 17 November Sarawak’s current Chief Minister Adenan Satem described the plunder of the state’s forests as “this robbery, which is carried out in broad daylight”. He summoned the heads of six of the world’s most powerful timber companies – Rimbunan Hijau, Samling, Shin Yang, WTK, KTS and Ta Ann – to sign a ‘corporate integrity pledge’ authorised by the Malaysian Institute of Integrity. The document ‘obliges’ the corporations to refrain from bribery and corruption in all aspects of their operations.
Although the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC) wouldn’t comment on Straumann’s specific allegations, communications and investment senior director Suria Zainal says the council supports all efforts to stamp out illegal logging in Malaysia.
“A point to note is that in Peninsular Malaysia, the logging industry and the timber manufacturing industry are two separate industries. This situation might be different in Sarawak, where many big companies are both loggers and manufacturers …
“Thus far, the Sarawak Chief Minister has been seen to be walking the talk, as there have been numerous press reports of authorities’ seizures of illegal logs, and of illegal loggers being exposed. Many of these are smaller companies, and not part of the ‘Big Six’ (they have longer-term forest concessions, so there’s no need to log illegally),” she told timber+DESIGN.
Straumann says 17 November 2014 may go down in history as a turning point for Sarawak and its current “ground zero deforestation”. But doubts pledges alone will be enough to save the threatened old-growth forests, which have been reduced to less than 10% of the state’s surface.
Ban log exports
BMF has called on the Sarawak Government to install a task force to deal with timber corruption, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity – and to replace the state’s top officials “who should have dealt with the current problems a long time ago but failed to do so.
“An export ban on raw logs would be one of the easiest and potentially most efficient short-term measures that could be taken, as recently shown by timber-producing countries such as Myanmar or Gabon.”
According to Malaysian Timber Industry Board figures for January – October 2014, log exports from Sarawak were 2,438,741 m3, and 258,378 m3 for Sabah – up slightly compared to the same period in 2013.
Log exports from Peninsular Malaysia have been banned since the late 1990s and there are many government officials who would like Malaysia’s two other states to adopt the same policy. “That would enable the raw materials to be processed further for value-adding, and contribute to the nation’s goal of increasing the value of exports of timber-based products,” said one.
Meanwhile, timber+DESIGN reader Andy Buchanan from New Zealand recently pointed out that the people of Sarawak face another major threat to their traditional way of life – dams!
“The Sarawak Government is building a number of huge dams which will flood valleys, deplete forest biodiversity and displace thousands of people who have depended on the forests for their livelihood for generations,” he wrote. “The justification for the dams is to generate hydro-electricity, but there is already a huge over-supply with no likely purchasers.”
(Editor: We are following this story because we believe buyers and specifiers of wood products should be able to make fully informed decisions about how and where they source their supplies.)
Our copy of Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Mafia by Lukas Straumann, was printed in Switzerland by Bergli.
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