Japanese companies are buying timber linked to illegal logging in the endangered rainforests of Sarawak, Malaysia and labeling much of it as ‘legal’ under a government-sanctioned certification scheme, according to a new report by Global Witness. The report describes how certain Japanese trading companies and DIY stores are sourcing timber from major logging companies in Sarawak involved in systematic illegal and destructive logging. Japan has been the largest importer of timber from Sarawak, Malaysia, for the past 20 years, accounting for half of all tropical plywood exported by Sarawak.
But rampant and often illegal logging is devastating Sarawak’s once abundant rainforests and threatening the livelihoods of the indigenous communities whose rights to their ancestral lands are often ignored by the state. Deforestation rates are among the highest in the world, and only 5% of Sarawak’s original forest cover remains unaffected by logging or clearance for plantations.
“Sarawak is Japan’s largest source of tropical timber, which might explain why the Japanese government and industry are turning a blind eye to the rampant illegal and unsustainable logging in Sarawak’s forestry sector”, said Rick Jacobsen, head of international forest policy at Global Witness. “As Sarawak’s biggest customer for timber, Japan must urgently take measures to ensure that it is not complicit in the destruction of Sarawak’s rainforests and human rights violations against the indigenous peoples who live in them.”
The trade in timber between Japan and Sarawak is dominated by some of the largest trading companies in Japan, many of whom are long term trading partners with Sarawak’s largest logging companies. Some of these same logging companies have recently been found to be involved in illegal and unsustainable logging in Sarawak and other places where they operate. The new report looks at evidence of systematic illegal and destructive logging by two of Sarawak’s largest logging companies, Samling Global1 and Shin Yang Group,2 and their trade with Japan.
Despite the evidence, major Japanese buyers such as Sojitz Corporation and Itochu Corporation continue to source from Samling and Shin Yang and have not put in place measures to independently verify that timber products sourced from the two companies are produced legally and free from human rights abuses.3 In fact, most of the timber products coming from Sarawak, including those sourced from logging concessions where systematic illegal logging has been documented, are likely to be certified as “legal” under the Goho-wood legality verification system being promoted by the Japanese government and industry. Under Goho-wood, Japan accepts the assurances of the Sarawak government as sufficient proof of legality.
“The fact that so much timber from Sarawak receives a stamp of approval from Japan’s Goho-wood legality verification system despite the evidence of systematic illegal logging by major logging companies is cause for serious concern,” said Rick Jacobsen. “The Japanese government should take measures to prohibit illegal timber from entering its markets and require companies to carry out due diligence on their supply chains to ensure they aren’t contributing to illegal logging, human rights abuses, and rainforest destruction in places like Sarawak.”
Japan’s policies on illegal logging fall well short of the comprehensive prohibitions on illegal timber products and requirements for due diligence put in place by the United States, European Union (EU), and Australia. Considering Sarawak’s exclusion from a timber trade agreement under negotiation between Malaysia and the EU, known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement, in part because of weaknesses in Sarawak’s systems for verifying legality, Japan’s acceptance of timber from Sarawak as legal contrasts sharply with the standards being set by the EU. If excluded, Sarawak would not be allowed to export timber products to the EU.