Major Article Targets Asian Loggers

With Malaysians and Indonesians at the forefront, Asian companies started moving out in the mid-1980s. They now dominate rainforest logging worldwide.

A major Associated Press article of August 16 this year dealt with an issue which has concerned rainforest activists for over five years -- the spread of Asian logging companies into rainforests around the world. The article deals with the way in which Asian companies, "flush with expertise and profits from felling local rainforests" have now spread to the South Pacific, Latin America and Africa. Faced with a dwindling resource-base in their countries' over-exploited forests, Asian companies have moved to other rainforests throughout the world.

According to the AP report, they now operate in 20 countries and the spread is continuing. Indonesian and Malaysian companies led the way when Asian logging companies first began expanding to other parts of the world in the mid 1980s.

"What we are witnessing today is a relatively new trend of 'South-South colonialism,' whereby southern transnational companies are making heavy investments in other 'more backward' Third World countries", the World Rainforest Movement's Marcus Colchester is quoted as saying.

WWF's Jean-Paul Jeanreneaud says in the article that there were certainly rapacious logging companies from other parts of the world, "but Asians are the worst". AP quotes Jeanreneau as saying that Asian companies show less regard for the environmental and social impacts of their activities.

AP reported that Asian companies have bought 8.6 million acres of tropical forest in Brazil, and could buy up to 15% of Brazil's loggable forest over the next two years. Like most Amazon loggers, Francisco Coelho, president of the Amazonas State Sawyers Syndicate, welcomes the new "Asian face" of the Amazon timber industry. The Asians represent money and employment to an industry where demand has slumped in recent times.

However, Brazil's president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has imposed a two-year moratorium on new concessions for mahogany and other rare timbers in an attempt to slow the advance of the industry. He has also vowed to revoke the concessions of companies which do not log sustainably.

Traditionally, the timber industry in Africa has been dominated by European companies, but it is likely that the story will be different over the next decade. Scarcity has driven up prices for woods such as mahogany and teak because countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have exhausted their forests.

Asian loggers are moving in many directions. In Guyana, the Malaysian-South Korean Barama Co., was recently granted a controversial concession half the size of Belgium. The government of neighbouring Suriname hopes to give a concession of similar size to Malaysia's Berjaya Group.

The forests of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific are expected to be logged out within a decade. In was revealed last year that seven government ministers in the Solomons accepted bribes from Malaysian loggers. Cambodia has sold off virtually all its forests and Malaysian firms -- mainly subsidiaries of Rimbunan Hijau -- are wreaking havoc on Papua New Guinea.

Editorial Comment:

While the activities of the logging companies mentioned in the AP article are of extreme concern, the characterisation of these firms as "Asian" may be counter-productive and divisive. Before these companies began their global expansion in the mid-eighties, European and American firms were more prominent but they were not described as a "white threat" to the world's forests. The fact that these companies are from a particular area of the world is not the key issue here, and it is hard to see how the emphasis on their Asian origins will help the forests or international harmony. Moreover, it could enable the Asian countries concerned to dismiss criticism of their practices as being racially inspired.

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