Forests Week: The vital importance of seeing the forests as so much more than just trees

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Perhaps it’s because trade has played such a key role for thousands of years in the evolution of human society that too often we struggle to see the natural world as anything more than a series of commodities.

The world’s forests have value far beyond any mercantile worth of the timber they contain – indeed, compared to their vital importance for livelihoods, culture, land security and biodiversity, their cash value should pale into insignificance. But, unfortunately, it does not.

EIA has worked with some of the most dedicated groups, individuals and communities over the past two decades to ensure that valuable timber species are included in addressing transnational crime and that forests are seen as part of the international sustainable development agenda. After all, more than a billion people rely on forests to sustain their livelihoods.

Over the years, we’ve seen how corruption at the top drives the rot within and how it supports many of the crimes necessary to expedite the trafficking of timber along illicit trade routes to reach end consumers. It criminalises local people, who are the first point of any law enforcement in countries shying away from the elites and untouchables.

Forest crime is an environmental crime and for far too long it has been regarded as somehow victimless. We need to understand that forests are, in reality, the last line of defence against the plunder of natural resources, both above and below ground – because forest crime is far from victimless.

When illegal loggers, aided by corrupt military officials, moved into the ancient forests of Indonesia’s West Papua in the early 2000s, they weren’t just helping themselves to valuable merbau trees that belong to nobody. These forests were the ancestral home of the Knasaimos people but their trees were ending up as products in countries far away. The partnership between the Knasaimos and our campaigners stopped the plundering and at the same time exposed how the international illicit trade in timber really did undermine good forest governance and how illegal logging was about far more than trees..

Similarly, the vast swathes of primal forest cleared and converted in Indonesia and elsewhere to make way for hugely profitable cash crops such as palm oil were devastated at the expense of the people who had lived there for uncounted generations, stripped of their lands through combinations of legal trickery and the threat of violence – and often accomplished with the direct assistance of corrupt agents of local and national government.

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Children of the Knasaimos, West Papua, 2007 (c) EIAimage

One such case in Papua, Indonesia, is far from unique and shows how companies using deception to gain access to timber and land undermined the rights and futures of communities. A company in Indonesia had promised payments for schooling, housing, vehicles and other benefits to clans in Papua if they agreed to release 830 hectares of forest for exploitation. They actually received $2,000 for each clan as “celebration money” for the land.

But before full clearing began, a logging company extracted all the large trees, followed later by a contracted company which cleared all those remaining. No payments were made for trees below 60cm diameter.

In conversations with villagers, our investigators learnt of the underhand techniques used by companies to ensure communities released their resources and land. Maryodi Malak, of the Mooi people, told us how the company had persuaded her husband Kefas and their son Manu to sign a land release document for four hectares of forest they owned. At the time he signed with a thumbprint, Manu was just four-years-old – well below the legal age to sign a contract.

The company reportedly told Mrs Malak it wanted the son of a clan leader to sign land release documents so that in the event the father died there would be proof the next generation had entered into the agreement for the full 25 years, which could be extended for another 30 years.


His future stolen for a thumbprint – Manu Malak with his mother Maryodi, West Papua (c) EIAimage

She never received a copy of the document and her request to the company to leave a small area of forest land for her family to support their livelihoods was not honoured; the company cleared more than the four hectares agreed.

The profits for the company were immediate and short-term with the logging of valuable trees – while its access to the land stole a future from the young boy.

Meanwhile, in Central Kalimantan we have exposed the widespread culture of corruption and poor law enforcement which drives a flood of illicit timber as plantations surge into frontier forests.

More recently, our Forest campaigners have been actively documenting breath-taking levels of illegal and destructive logging in Myanmar and it is here that we can see a microcosm of broader governance problems in the manner in which the country’s forests are treated – runaway corruption, a broad lack of transparency, little or no respect for the rule of law and armed conflict.

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Villagers participating in a prayer ceremony at the MSPP oil palm concession, Tanintharyi, Myanmar (c) EIAimage

Early this year, communities from Myanmar’s Tanintharyi showed how foreign companies were taking advantage of poor governance in the country to plunder natural resources for profit. For years, communities have been living in the midst of a civil war between the Burmese Army and Ethnic Armed Organisations. While the bullets have stopped flying for now, any regulatory procedures and/or laws established under the military regime, bad as they are, have been ignored to allow military cronies to profit from planting oil palm.

As well as contributing to the threats that the people face, agreements made between companies and the community are driving conflict between them. Once again, the beneficiaries are not the people who rely on their forests and land for survival.

On 19 December 2017, a convoy of Burmese military trucks transporting illegally sourced timber was stopped at a Karenni checkpoint. The checkpoint was under the control of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and part of an agreement for access by the Myanmar Army and the KNPP. After three or four trucks had passed, Karenni soldiers stopped the convoy and checked their loads, discovering a variety of timber covered with firewood. Questions were asked and verification sought as to who gave permission for the prohibited timber to be transported, since the Karenni soldiers had not been told to allow timber to pass. They were informed Myanmar’s Regional Command had given permission and, after questioning, let the trucks pass.

Repercussions happened the very next day when up to 60 Burmese soldiers returned to shoot dead four Karenni. The point was made with brutal eloquence – ‘you do not question us and you do not question timber being transported’.  There has to date been no resolution to this appalling crime.

When the KNPP demanded the bodies of the Karenni killed by Burmese soldiers be returned, they were sent four bottles containing ashes and bone fragments.

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Log trucks moving stolen timber out of Myanmar via an illicit border crossing (c) EIAimage

In 2015, following years of field and desk-based research, we published our findings in the report Organised Chaos, exposing the key actors and the systemic corruption driving and facilitating a huge trade in stolen timber from Myanmar’s Kachin State to China. Shady Chinese businesses paid in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains while official corruption allowed the timber to pass checkpoints unhindered. This corruption infests the highest levels but is messy and difficult to expose due to the civil war.

Some time later, EIA learnt that the border was closed for up to five months at the direction of Beijing and the head of the criminal syndicate controlling the supply of timber was arrested and, to date, has not resumed her role.

This has not stopped the illegal trade and nor has it stopped illegal logging in Myanmar, but it did significantly disrupt criminal timber flows, brought the issue into the political arena and it gave both countries the opportunity to discuss solutions.

On a wider scale we know that the ability of civil society and communities to access information and monitor local forests and other natural resources creates a chain of evidence which increases the visibility of accountability against government or corporate actors seeking to access those resources. It is dangerous but essential work.

Safeguarding forests and people is important because changing the way forests are governed can drive progressive reform in the wider state.