Japan's relentless imports of Sarawak timber, valued at RM2.6 billion a year, and questionable logging practices of the state may soon deplete it of forest, says a special report released today by Global Witness.

Over the last two decades, Japan has consumed about one-third of all timber products exported by Sarawak, and this trade today represents the single largest bilateral flow of tropical timber, Global Witness said.

"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 (in Sarawak), is cause for serious concern," the head of international forest policy at Global Witness, Rick Jacobsen, said in a press statement.

NONEUnder Goho-wood, Japan accepts the assurances of the Sarawak government as enough proof that timber harvesting is done legally in Sarawak. It has therefore certified that no illegal process is involved in timber harvesting in the East Malaysian state.

Meanwhile, Sarawak's deforestation rates are among the highest in the world. Today, only five percent of Sarawak's original forest cover remains unaffected by logging or clearance for plantations, Global Witness said. 

The international NGO also noted that deforestation was threatening the livelihood of the indigenous communities of Sarawak, whose rights to their ancestral lands are often trampled upon.

Japan is the world's second largest consumer of tropical timber, after China, and is the largest importer of tropical plywood, which comes mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia, Global Witness said.

This latest report, which has been uploaded on the Global Witnesswebsite, looks at evidence of systematic illegal and destructive logging by two of Sarawak's largest logging companies and their trade with Japan. Malaysiakini is seeking a response on this from these two companies before naming them.
'Japan must tighten timber import laws'
In the report, Global Witness says that some of the largest Japanese trading companies, such as Sojitz Corp, Itochu Corp, Marubeni Corp, Sumitomo Corp, and Mitsui & Co, are involved in careless timber trade and that they have long-term ties with Sarawak's largest logging companies.

It therefore called on Japan to tighten its timber import laws, which currently only compel national government agencies, which account for less than five percent of total consumption of timber products, to check on the legality of their timber sources.

"The regulation excludes plywood used for concrete moulding during building construction, a common use of tropical plywood. Private businesses and citizens are encouraged, but not required, to purchase legal timber products under Japanese law," the Global Witness report says.

NONEJapan continues to be Sarawak's most important timber customer. In 2012, Japan is estimated to have accounted for 31 percent of the roundwood (or small logs) exported by Sarawak and valued at US$800 million (RM2.6 billion).

In 2012, Sarawak exported 55 percent of its plywood to Japan, and this accounted for 49 percent of Japan's total plywood imports.

Global Witness said one aim of its report is to pressure Japan to tighten its timber trade laws to match those of other developed countries, such as Australia, the United States and the European countries.

"Despite the evidence, the Japanese industry associations and companies contacted by Global Witness and other NGOs have failed to put into place measures to independently verify that timber products sourced from (the two logging companies) are produced legally and are free from human rights violations," it adds.

Global Witness in March this year released a secretly filmed videoshowing two first cousins of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and other business associates allegedly explaining ways in which they abuse and exploit land and logging licences given to them by Taib.

~ Malaysiakini