Forests of Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is blessed with abundant natural resources, but the New Guineans do not have the skills to develop resource sustainability. To boost the economy, the government has had to rely on trade and investment from other countries in areas such as mining and timber products.
The main exported products are logs and the main buyers are Japan (who buy 56% of all exports), Korea and China. Other countries include Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The logging and timber industry is big business for PNG. Official statistics show a decrease in timber exports since 1998 when the government increased log export tax. However, the data only accounts for legal exports. There is a huge demand for logs from Asia and a thriving black market in timber operates in PNG. Consequently, the overall level of logging is probably increasing.
The profit from logging does not reach the people who own the land. Out of the $500 million worth of trees shipped out in 1995, the tribes owning the land only received 3% of the money. The remaining 97% went to the logging industry and the government.
To help support an unstable economy and a population expected to double over the next 30 years, the government faces increased pressure to look for surviving forests to support the timber trade. The government has a tough balancing act between increasing PNG’s economic viability and maintaining the environment and natural resources. Despite government claims of environmental protection, logging is the biggest threat to PNG’s rainforests.
In addition to the maintenance of the economy and environment, the government has had to deal with violent interactions on Bougainville Island between locals making their feelings heard about pollution, environmental damage and poor financial support to the local economy and mine owners. A subsequent closure of the mines and the fighting that followed, led to the people of Bougainville Island fighting for independence. The Bougainville war officially ended in April 1998, but during its course up to 20 000 people were killed. Fighting has continued sporadically, leading to the island being a volatile, dangerous place to live and visit.
A revolving succession of prime ministers, many political parties and motions of no-confidence in party leaders all add to the generally unstable nature of PNG’s political and social environment. The common changes in political leaders make it difficult for continuation of policies to protect the environment.
With its chequered history involving war, corruption and natural disasters, the government has had to take loans totalling $350 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, the Australian Government and the Japanese Export Bank. In order to receive these loans, PNG must open their country further to trade investment and promote development of the forest sector. Another factor, which increases the logging trade, is the proposed registration of communal tribal land, providing more opportunity for multinational companies to contact landowners directly and further exploit the people and their forests.
In November 1998, the government of Papua New Guinea decreased the log export tax after pressure from those supporting the logging industry. This increased timber exports by almost 250%. Loggers took advantage of this tax saving and stockpiled logs, anticipating the future increase. The government subsequently reversed their decision to decrease log export tax, and timber export became more expensive.
Officially, clear felling (cutting down large areas of forest to reach certain trees) is illegal, but in actual fact the selected logging process used (clearing only a specific area of trees) differs little from clear felling. The selected logging process is destructive and ecologically damaging, with little opportunity for sustaining future forests. 70% of trees left after selected logging are so damaged that they do not survive more than 10 years (Uhl and Viera 1989, Pinard et al 1995, Dykstra et al 1996).
Papua New Guinea's forest sector is plagued by corruption. Landowners are seeing their homes, food and water supplies, medicines and livelihoods damaged by industrial logging, but there is a conspiracy of silence from the few who benefit from the industry. The level of corruption was investigated by SBS News Australia (February 2001) and is thought to go as far as landowners being forced at gunpoint to sign legal documents in a language they cannot read, or at the threat of rape of their female relatives. The police are bribed into protecting the rich loggers rather than local community.
The corruption within the industry was investigated and proven by the Barnett Commission of Inquiry into the Aspects of the Timber Industry in PNG (1989) who commented that they had found evidence of corruption and that almost all landowner companies had been coerced or influenced by the logging companies. On 10 April 2001, a World Bank independent review team who had the responsibility to try and clear corruption from this industry commented that the PNG Forest Authority was “incompetent at almost every level of the forest management process.” (Source: Copyright 2001 AAP, in the National (PNG)).
Government mismanagement of the forestry sector has undermined overall economic and political confidence in PNG. Investment is necessary is for development of the country. Without development there is greater dependence on natural resources such as timber, as a source of revenue.