The endangered hardwood kwila, also known as merbau, is running out of time in the West Papuan rainforests. In spite of several campaigns and environmental reports, the wood is still a popular buy in New Zealand, reports Marcus Bank for Asia-Pacific Journalism.
Report – By Marcus Bank
Within a decade, kwila hardwood forests will no longer exist, says environmental advocate Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesian forest campaign.
He has recently returned from Indonesian-ruled West Papua, from where New Zealand imports most of its kwila.
“The pressure on kwila has increased over the last years. It is very concerning,” he says. “The market is growing and the forests can’t stand the pressure.”
But the problems with the timber have had no public attention for a few years.
Maitar thinks the issue needs to be back on the agenda. There is an urgent need for New Zealand’s parliament and government to react over the situation facing the survival of kwila, he says.
From his recent visit to West Papua, he witnessed how local communities have trouble with getting money from the logging.
Most of the wood is now being shipped out of West Papua to other Indonesian islands for processing, making the local Papuan community lose income, he says.
“The compensation to the community is very low. Sometimes they just get a circa compensation, and when they ask about the low price they often end up face-to-face with the police or military,” he says.
“The government in New Zealand should ask and investigate how much an impact the logging has had on the community as well as the forests.”
Steffan Browning, a Green Party list MP and spokesperson for forestry, agrees with the seriousness of the issue. He thinks it is time to pass legislation to combat unsustainable logging and trade.
“We need to ban imports of kwila. There are alternatives, including new heat-treated pine products that have similar properties,” he says.
However, the Ministry for Primary Industries will not do anything more, according to a spokesperson in a statement to Pacific Scoop.
Since the kwila sold in New Zealand has been required to have a certification, there is no need for further regulation, the statement said.
Bans ‘not needed’
“Given that importers and retailers are changing their behavior in line with government policy, there is little need to introduce regulations or bans on the import of kwila,” said the spokesperson.
There are no statistics that indicate exactly how much kwila is imported into New Zealand but more than 10 of the largest retailers advertise the wood which can be bought all over the country.
A 2013 report by the Ministry for Primary Industries showed that 81 percent of kwila imported to New Zealand came from Indonesia which actually means it is imported from West Papua.
“Almost all of the kwila forests in Indonesia are situated in West Papua,” says Maitar.
The problems with kwila logging emerged in 2007 when Greenpeace published a report claiming most of the kwila import from West Papua came from illegal logging.
Human right activist groups, such as the Rainforest Action Group and the Indonesian Human Rights Committee (now the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Coalition) raised the issue with Parliament and retailers.
Human rights activist Maire Leadbeater was the organisation’s spokesperson at that time.
“We went personally from retailer to retailer and protested outside the stores,” she says.
“It made an impact. We got several retailers to stop the selling of kwila.”
In 2011, the New Zealand Imported Tropical Timber Group (NZITTG) – a group of major tropical timber importers – agreed not to import kwila from Indonesia without a legality check. This later meant that 80 percent of all kwila in New Zealand was verified as a legal import.
Despite certifications of legality, Grant Rosoman, forest solutions team Leader at Greenpeace says there is still a big problem with the logging of kwila.
“The industry has improved, but legal logging is only one-third of the way,” he says.
“There are still a lot of problems concerning indigenous rights, protecting the biodiversity and sustainability of the forests.
“But it seems like the industry think it has found out that the legality is enough to make market access” and continues – “so we still recommend not to buy kwila.”
Michael Pescott, programme manager at the Forest Trust (TFT) – an organisation that advices companies how to produce more responsible products – also sees some major issues concerning the logging of kwila.
“The major issue is sustainable harvest, and making sure that the local people are treated fairly. The social and environmental aspects are still a big problem,” he says.
Last year the Indonesian government applied a new law called the timber legality verification system (SVLK), which includes requirements that will help sustainability, such as the need to conduct an inventory of standing wood volume.
This is a step in the right direction, Pescott says, although he is still concerned with the future of kwila.
“The industry needs to take more leadership on this. It is a pretty simple business and the supply chains can be managed but no one is demanding change, and that is the problem,” he says.
“We need to get it back on the agenda and into people’s minds.”
Marcus Bank is an Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme student journalist from Denmark on exchange at AUT University and on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.