How NZ decking timber choices compound a human rights crisis in West Papua

A New Zealand ban on kwila would send a signal that we’re serious about protecting our planet, its ancient forests and the people whose lives depend on them, writes Maire Leadbeater of West Papua Action Auckland

Deforestation is said to contribute about 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Brazil and Indonesia logging and forest conversion are the main source of the carbon emissions that have propelled them both into the list of the world’s top ten carbon polluters. Combating deforestation and helping to restore degraded forests could be the key to meeting the global target of no more than 2% rise in global temperature by 2030. Alarmingly, Brazil’s new development-minded President, Jair Bolsonaro has designs for mines and farms that threaten to escalate the destruction of the Amazon, and in our region West Papua’s paradise forests face multiple threats – escalating illegal logging, gigantic palm oil conversion projects and a highway project that will cut deep into intact forest abutting the World Heritage Lorentz National Park.

Almost all the rainforest kwila (or merbau) that comes to our shores originates in Indonesian ruled West Papua. Kwila used to grow across the Asia Pacific but these days it is close to extinction as a species and is only present in commercial quantities on the island of New Guinea. Merbau takes 75 to 80 years to grow to maturity and it grows sparsely, usually only five to 10 trees per hectare. Kwila isn’t suitable for plantation planting and targeting it for logging cannot be done without the collateral damage caused by building roads.

Kwila is an attractive wood that stands up well to climate extremes, so it has been sought after for decking and outdoor furniture. It is now over a decade since Greenpeace exposed the vast scale of illegal logging of kwila. A ‘Don’t Buy Kwila’ campaign got under way in New Zealand and a number of retailers agreed to cease selling kwila furniture. Unfortunately, in 2008, a Labour-led government decided not to regulate against kwila imports and illegally logged wood, instead opting to encourage importers and consumers to do the right thing. A subsequent National-led government reinforced this approach. The New Zealand Imported Timber Trade Group (NZITTG) developed a voluntary code that commits its members to source their wood from third party certified sustainable/responsible sources. On paper government backs listing kwila with the Convention on the International Trade in endangered species, but it hasn’t actively pushed the issue.

Despite the good intentions of the NZITTG, these half-hearted measures have failed. Kwila decking continues to pour into New Zealand and unsurprisingly there are importers who don’t subscribe to the voluntary code and source “dodgy” kwila at lower prices. TradeMe has a policy that requires sellers of new kwila to provide certification of sustainability but current listings suggest it is not enforcing its pledge. As far as I am concerned, none of it, certified or not, can be viewed as sustainably supplied. We don’t certify ivory, we ban it because we want the elephants to survive and we should follow the same preventative strategy for kwila.

At the end of last year, on-the-ground reports provided damning evidence that West Papua’s extensive forest cover is under renewed attack. A report published by the well-respected Indonesian journal Tempo set out the subterfuges used to get around the Indonesian government’s weak system of policing illegal logging. The report described “timber laundering” that included the manipulation of barcodes and the taking of timber from unpermitted community forests. Investigators compared the satellite imagery showing recent deforestation with the quantities of kwila and other tropical timber being exported and estimated that only about one third was being officially accounted for.

New Zealand is not the main market for West Papua’s kwila – Europe and China cannot get enough of it – but we contribute to the problem.

Linked to the logging scandals are industrial scale palm oil conversion scandals.

Plans for the “Tanah Merah” project would see 2,800 square kilometres of forest (larger than the size of Stewart Island and Lake Taupo combined) logged out to make way for palm oil. Tribal people were reportedly pressed for their consent under military and police intimidation, and environment groups are pushing the Indonesian President to revoke the web of permits.

Since Indonesia took control of West Papua in 1963, indigenous rights have taken a distant back seat as Indonesia and multinational companies exploit the territory’s timber and mineral resources. Jakarta touts development as the answer to Papuan discontent, but disrupting traditional subsistence living causes nothing but hunger and misery. This land grab is a significant contributory factor to a human rights crisis which is so bad it is a kind of “slow genocide”.

A New Zealand ban on kwila would not end illegal logging or stop climate change, but it would send a signal that New Zealand is serious about protecting our planet, its ancient forests and the people whose lives depend on them.


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