Book Review:


A review of the book Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia, by Peter Dauvergne; The MIT Press,

After the disastrous forest fires in Indonesia last year, one of the
country's timber barons, Bob Hasan, was interviewed on
international television. Loggers and large plantation owners had
been accused of starting some of the fires and allowing them to
burn; the Indonesian government had been attacked for not
taking strong action to prevent and control the fires. Hasan used
the interview to attack foreign conservationists as if somehow
they were a threat to the Indonesian economy and forests.
At the time I was reading Peter Dauvergne's Shadows in the
Forest -- an excellent expose of how Japan's consumption of
tropical timber has worked with the local political relationships in
Southeast Asian countries to drive the destruction of tropical
forests. Hasan's weak attempt to divert scrutiny away from the
timber industry's and government's responsibility for at least
some of the fires was the kind of behaviour to be expected from
someone in the industry receiving political patronage from within
the Indonesian government, as described by Dauvergne.
However, responsibility for the destruction of Southeast
Asian forests for timber exports, especially to Japan, does not rest
with just a few individuals -- and that is the problem. If it were
so, then tackling the demise of the region's tropical forests might
be easy. Rather it is a complex social, political, and economic
problem. Dauvergne argues that there have been two important
sets of forces acting to drive the process of destruction.
The first is Japan's "ecological shadow", which is "the
aggregate environmental impact on resources outside a country's
(i.e. Japan's) territory of three sets of factors": 1) government
policies and practices, 2) corporate conduct, and 3) trade. Together
they create the pressure for large-volume resource consumption
and dictate the basic structure within which those resources will
be supplied.
The second, found in the timber-producing nations, are the
"patron-client" power relationships in which "a higher ranked
person provides protection and benefits to a lower-ranked person
in exchange for loyalty and assistance, including personal
services." Networks of such relationships linked to the timber
industry demand that the management of wood resources serve
the political and financial interests of related social elites at
various levels in those countries. It is the kind of management
that is at the expense of forest dwellers, non-wood forest values,
weaker social classes, and competing national interests.
Dauvergne is not the first to ascribe responsibility for
tropical forest destruction in the region to Japan (Nectoux, F. &
Kuroda, Y.; 1989) and local political elites (Plumwood, V. &
Routley, R.; 1982). However, he is the first to describe in intricate
and devastating detail how the two have worked together to mine
the timber resources and destroy much of the forests in
Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines -- over one-third of the
book (i.e., more than 100 pages) is given to Appenidices, Notes,
and References that support the facts and arguments he presents.
And what do we read about? Frankly, while the detail is
fascinating, the story is rather depressing:
Japan's wasteful use of legally and illegally exported tropical
wood, its huge general trading companies shifting massive
quantities of cheap wood, lack of concern for sustainable wood
production and forest management, overseas aid that supported
logging for Japanese companies, failed "environmental aid" loans
that increase the pressure of recipient nations to export natural
resources; and,
In the supplier nations of the Philippines, Indonesia, and
Malaysia -- politicians with direct and indirect links to logging,
distribution of timber profits through patron-client networks,
timber concessions given to political cronies, military profiteering,
lack of forest law enforcement, destructive and unsustainable
logging, low royalties, avoidance of export restrictions, and export
of cheap processed wood to undercut foreign processors.
The book leaves little doubt that the region's forests have a
bleak future without strong concerted international action and one
wonders just what can be done against such entrenched and
powerful forces. Dauvergne doesn't address this issue in much
detail, but this shouldn't be regarded as a flaw in the book. As he
explains, understanding this sad and disturbing detail provides
the essential base from which to tackle such complex, trade-
related environmental problems and developing strategies that
address the real causes of regional rainforest destruction. That the
poor and starving are the primary cause of rainforest destruction
in these Southeast Asian countries is shown to be a myth that only
serves the political and industrial interests benefiting from the
While "there will be no easy solutions," Dauvergne points
towards the fundamental requirements such solutions will require
-- money, dialogue, compromise, and enforcement of strong
resource and conservation policies, as well as the international
community's confrontation of the political forces promoting
rainforest destruction. He takes the problem of solutions much
further in his recent article in International Enviromental Affairs
(Dauvergne, P.; 1997), and the principles and incentives that he
discusses and advocates in this piece need to be given real and
rapid consideration, especially by the tropical rainforest
consumers such as Japan.
The Japanese government, however, has been spending
hundreds of thousands, if not several millions of dollars on
bureaucratic organisations like Eco-Asia, which holds expensive
meetings in lavish hotels to discuss environmental problems in
the Asian region. Eco-Asia, at least, seems to have produced little
concrete action other than regular repetitive reports that can be
used in international forums to prop up an image of a caring and
active Japanese government. Substantive action and impacts on
rainforest destruction appear limited, and one wonders at what
the results of a comprehensive cost-benefit accounting of this
body would reveal.
Another new organisation has recently been established and
staffed by sincere government employees: The Institute for Global
Environmental Strategies. One of the research activities of this
body is going to be Forest Conservation and an expected result is
to be a strategy for "sustainable forest management for the Asia
and the Pacific." Just how this project develops and whether it will
tackle political and economic causes or take a simplistic technical
line could well be determined by bureaucratic infighting in Japan.
Before spending any more money on these organizations, the
Japanese government would make more of a contribution to
rainforest protection by funding the translation of Dauvergne's
book and article into Japanese, printing them on recycled paper,
and making them required reading for all government officials
with any responsibility related to the timber trade and
environmental protection.
You should read them, too.

Other references:

Dauvergne, P. (1997). "A Model of Sustainable International Trade
in Tropical Timber." International Environmental Affairs, 9(1), 3-

Nectoux, F. & Kuroda, Y. (1989). Timber from the South Seas: An
Analysis of Japan's Tropical Timber Trade and its Environmental
Impact. WWF International, Gland, pp. 134.

Plumwood, V. & Routley, R. (1982). "World Rainforest Destruction:
The Social Factors." The Ecologist, 12(1), 4-22.

Source: Japan Environment Monitor