WASHINGTON, Mar. 29 (IPS) - An international plan to reduce tariffs on wood and paper products produced by Asia-Pacific nations would threaten the future of forests in the region, say environmentalists.
In the shadow of the current Asia financial crisis, U.S. trade representatives - working in coordination with the 18 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries, are pushing to reduce trade barriers on forest products.
The drive for free trade of these forest products by APEC economies, which span North and South America all the way to East Asia, is part of a larger plan to lift all trade barriers by 2010 for developed countries, and by the year 2020 for developing countries.
Environmentalists fear this plan to reduce tariffs on wood and paper products will make a bad situation worse. Having recently suffered through the choking haze, caused by Indonesian forest fires that shrouded large parts of South-east Asia, activists in the region fear that increased production and consumption of forest products in the region will encourage even more deforestation.
''We are troubled by the U.S. Trade Representative's apparent desire to deregulate the forest sector without concern for environmental protection or public participation,'' environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, wrote to trade ministers.
''From the ancient temperate forests of the US Pacific Northwest, to the tropical moist forests of South East Asia, these ecosystems are threatened by the combined forces of increasing production and consumption of wood products.''
U.S. trade officials, who also have pushed for reducing tariff barriers on forest products under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Treaties (GATT), say they are interested in meeting with the organisations to hear their concerns. While they acknowledge the problem of deforestation in the region, they maintain that reducing tariffs on trade in forest products in the region will not harm the environment.
Not so, say evironmental groups.
The driving force behind forest exploitation in the Asia Pacific is the ever increasing consumption of wood products, primarily paper - mostly by Western Europe, North America and Japan. A reduction in trade barriers on these products would encourage the production and consumption of such products because the lower price will make them more competitive with synthetic products , say environmentalists and industry officials.
According to United Nations and government forecasts compiled by the Sweden-based Taiga Rescue Network, the global consumption of paper and paperboard is expected to continue to increase by 70 to 80 percent from 1990 levels (estimated at 45 kg per capita) until the year 2010. The fastest paper consumption growth is expected for Asia Pacific - estimated to increase by 50-59 tonnes during the period 1990-2010.
Environmentalists say that this increase combined with APEC's push toward trade liberalisation will only make existing deforestation problems worse in the Pacific Rim.
Asia is losing forest area more rapidly than any other region in the world, according to Molly O'Meara, a researcher with the Washington-based World Watch Institute. ''Studies suggest that if present deforestation trends continue, all of the region's remaining tropical timbers will be eliminated in less than 40 years.''
APEC economies, which include Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States, are also home to 63 percent of the world 'frontier forests' some of the most ecologically important and endangered forests in the world, says Paige Fischer, a coordinator with the California-based Pacific Environment and Resources Centre, one of the main authors of the letter.
These large relatively intact primary forest ecosystems are home to rare and endangered species, food and shelter for communities and mitigate global climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide.
While trade ministers say they share environmentalists concern about deforestation in the region, they argue that more open trade under the APEC plan for free trade in forest products would support improved forest management practices. They say that current tariff levels on forest products contribute to the inefficient uses of valuable forest resources.
But trade ministers say they are interested in dialogue with the environmental groups. U.S. trade officials told IPS that they are currently consulting with the Trade and Environmental Protection Advisory Committee in regards to environmentalists' concerns. Meanwhile, the U.S. paper and forest products industry, the largest in the world, actively supports the trade ministers and APEC's push toward liberalisation.
''The action by APEC is of critical importance to the U.S. forest products industry, the largest in the world,'' said a statement from the Washington-based American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA), a powerful industry lobby group. ''A global, tariff-free market for forest products is the number one international priority of AFPA.''
The lobby group acknowledges that tariff cuts will make wood products more competitive than non-wood substitutes and will boost the overall consumption of wood but refused to answer IPS's questions if it would increase deforestation in the region.
Environmentalists also charge that these plans to reduce tariffs have been hidden behind a vale of secrecy. ''As U.S. Trade Representatives collaborates with its APEC counter parts on the plan, it refuses to publicly disclose any work plans or other documents for review by and input from the public, independent forest ecologists, and other decision makers,'' environmentalists wrote in the letter.
Trade representatives, however, have turned to industry for advice. The Industry Sector Advisory Committees, and other bodies organised by U.S. Trade Representatives that are usually closed to the public, are made up of industry representatives including the American Forest and Paper Association.
Problems have surrounded non-governmental organisation (NGO) participation in APEC discussions and negotiations. NGOs tried to make themselves heard at the 1994 APEC meeting in Indonesia, but were denied a permit to meet and had to relocate to Thailand.
At the 1995 forum in Japan, NGOs drew closer to the process by gathering in Kyoto, one hour by car from the official meetings in Osaka. In recent APEC gatherings in Manila and Vancouver, parallel NGO forums confronted the official meetings with tactics ranging from picketing to policy dialogue.
While they may be kept out of APEC forums, NGOs in Asia, already skeptical of a move to turn the Asia-Pacific into a free- trade hub, are becoming even more wary about rushing to lift all trade and investment barriers given the region's economic troubles.
Critics, including Walden Bello of the Bangkok-based Focus on the South, say the industrialised economies of the west have been using the crisis as an opportunity to pry open Asian markets.
''APEC countries are already too open to world markets and short-term speculators and are thus easy prey to transnational firms trying to maximise their profits,'' said Antonio Tujan, executive director of the Manila-based Ibon Foundation research centre. (END/IPS/dk/mk/98)