Illegal logging makes up 70 percent of Papua New Guinea's timber industry

By Jeremy Hance on 

Aerial view of jungle river on the island of New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Corruption, weak governance, and powerful timber barons are illegally stripping the forests of Papua New Guinea, according to a new report from the Chatham House. The policy institute finds that 70 percent of logging in Papua New Guinea is currently illegal, despite the fact that 99 percent of land is owned by local indigenous communities. 

"The biggest challenge is dealing with collusion between corrupt officials and logging firms," author of the report Sam Lawson told "The logging industry in Papua New Guinea is very powerful, while the government is extremely weak...The largest logging firm owns one of the two national newspapers, for example." 

In fact, the logging industry has managed to skirt some of the strongest community and forest land rights in the world—at least on paper. In practice, according to the report, Papua New Guinea's customary land laws suffer from poor transparency and few mechanisms to mitigate conflict. 

"In theory [Papua New Guinea's community rights] should help protect forests, but the reality sadly has been that powerful businesspeople and corrupt politicians have been able to sell the communities short through fraud, bribery and intimidation," added Lawson. 

In recent years, companies used a distinct government program to access vast areas of forest for logging. Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) were initially promoted as a way to support local agriculture, but the program has led to widespread corruption as well as massive and ongoing deforestation. 

"The first that many communities would know about a [SABL] project was when the bulldozers arrived. This failure to obtain consent has led to large numbers of conflicts between developers and local people," reads the report. 

Before a moratorium was issued on new SABLs in 2010, the government handed out over 11 percent of Papua New Guinea's land under the program, comprising an area covering 5.1 million hectares or the size of Costa Rica. 

"Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry has concluded that 90 percent of these [SABLs] were illegally issued through fraud and corruption, and called for them to be cancelled," said Lawson. "Yet a third of all timber produced in Papua New Guinea continues to come from these areas. SABLs are just the latest ruse used by dodgy timber companies and corrupt officials to circumvent legal controls on logging in Papua New Guinea." 

One of the challenges that Papua New Guinea faces in cleaning up its timber sector is that most of its exported wood is going to China. As the U.S., EU, and Australia have cracked down on importing illegally logged timber, the amount of Papua New Guinea wood imported to these countries has declined. In the meantime China, which has no regulations in importing illegally logged wood, has become the criminal trade's biggest importer. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), in 2011 China imported at least 18.5 million cubic meters of illegal logs and sawn timber from around the world, totaling about $3.7 billion. Twenty one percent of this illegal timber stemmed from Papua New Guinea. 

To remedy the country's illegal logging epidemic, the Chatham House report recommends increasing enforcement, finalizing a new legal standard, and creating a transparent chain of custody system. 

"Once real enforcement begins, dissuasive penalties must be applied where serious breaches are exposed, including the cancellation of logging licenses," reads the report. "The authorities must also radically overhaul and improve transparency of forest-related information, thereby making it easier for third parties to assist in monitoring the sector and making corruption more difficult to get away with." 

Once these are achieved, the Chatham House says Papua New Guinea should consider partnering with the EU on its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), which aids countries in combatting illegal logging through installing a working legal system. 

"When the forests are destroyed or degraded by illegal logging, livelihoods are damaged or destroyed," said Lawson. "Illegal logging also fuels corruption and conflict, preventing the country as a whole from developing. The poor stay poor as a result." 

To date, around 70 percent of Papua New Guinea remains forested, making it one of the most densely-forested tropical countries. In addition, many species—including long-beaked echidnas, most tree kangaroos, and birds-of-paradise—are only found on the island of New Guinea, which is shared between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.