The rainforests of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are crucial for the conservation of precious habitats, for the survival of indigenous peoples and to prevent the global climate change. But forest degradation, driven primarily by excessive commercial logging, most of which is illegal, is a perpetual threat. Papua New Guinea recently became the world’s top producer of tropical timber, around 3.8 million cubic meters has been exported in 2014. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, around 90 per cent of the timber exported from Papua New Guinea and around 85 per cent from the Solomon Islands is estimated to be illegal.
“Trees are being cut in prohibited zones, logging occurs beyond surveyed areas….community obligations [by logging companies], such as roads and bridges, are not built to standards,” says Samson Kupale of Eco-Forestry Forum.
In Papua New Guinea forests stretch over 29 million hectares, covering about 75 per cent of its total surface. In the Solomon Islands rainforests cover only 2.2 million hectares, but this is at least 80 per cent of the country's surface. More than 80 per cent of the population of both countries relies on forests for food, fresh water and materials for shelter.
in the last decade, industrial logging has escalated with the growing demand for timber by emerging Asian economies. Also land clearance for agriculture and plantations (for example, oil palm), also contributes to the timber industry.
Logging operations are mostly located in remote locations, where implementation by forestry authorities is a serious challenge.
The US-based Oakland Institute recently claimed in a new report that there are strong indicators of widespread transfer pricing in the country with the potential loss of US$100 million per year in tax revenues. Despite the rapacious appetite for timber extraction by foreign investors, the majority claims that they have made little or no profit over the past decade and, thus, avoided paying 30 per cent income tax on profit, the report details.
In the Solomon Islands, the situation is also critical. Half the forests on Kolombangara Island in the country’s northwest are now degraded after 50 years of voracious extraction while local landowners have battled against illegal loggers in the courts for years.
More than 80 per cent of land in the Solomon Islands is under customary ownership and negotiation between logging companies and traditional landowners for access to land can be flawed. ‘Middle men’, or individuals within communities who do not have the traditional authority, are known to sign-off logging agreements in return for sweeteners.
Being impotent and understaffed, enforcement agencies are also prone to bribery and patronage. Collusion between foreign logging companies and political elites is acknowledged as a serious barrier to industry compliance.
“There are government ministers, provincial ministers who are agents of these loggers and they exercise undue discretionary powers over the granting of logging concessions,” Ruth Liloqula, Chair of Transparency Solomon Islands, told IPS News, adding that loggers also “have undue influence over the politicians not to pass relevant legislation in this sector.”
Another problem, she said, is that logging companies, rather than the government, now pay the costs of timber rights meetings where decisions are made about logging proposals. “Even when the evidence is heavily on the side of the objectors, the decision is [often] in favour of the side supported financially by the loggers,” Liloqula said.