ENVIRONMENT- CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Oct 20 (IPS) - When a global anti-graft watchdog surveys the Asian landscape for corruption indicators, the continent's forests depleted by illegal logging invariably enter the picture.
Deforestation Symptomatic of Corrupt Regimes
What has fuelled such abuse is the political climate that shrouds the forestry sector in the region, she explained to IPS in this northern Thai city, where a conference on the future of forests in Asia and the Pacific was held last week. ''There is a great deal of lack of accountability and transparency in the forestry sector. Forests are held under the authority of governments, so there is no one to check the abuse by relevant ministries, politicians and local officials.''
In fact, TI estimates that if left unchecked, the current pace of illegal logging in the Asian region could result in a loss of 6.6 million hectares by 2020. The affected countries range from Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia to Burma, Laos and Papua New Guinea.
Currently, Asia and the Pacific have 700 million ha of forestland out of the world's 3.9 million ha, or some 30 percent of the earth's landmass. In the past 15 years, however, this region lost 10 million ha of its forest cover, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the U.N. agency that hosted the conference on forestry, which drew 250 experts, policy makers and activists from 39 countries.
Other international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have expressed similar concerns about rampant corruption fuelling the destruction of pristine forests across Asia. According to a speaker from the Rainforest Alliance at the conference, illegal logging in developing Asia ''results in the loss of assets and revenue of over 10 billion U.S. dollars annually.''
In June this year, another NGO, Global Witness, shed light on the dire situation in Cambodia, one of South-east Asia's poorest countries afflicted with the twin evils of corruption and illegal logging. The illegal logging trade in the country was estimated to be 13 million US dollars annually, said the London-based group in its report, 'Cambodia's Family Trees'.
The just-ended conference was also informed of other disturbing realities. They ranged from Indonesia being singled out as a country where it is estimated that ''90 percent of logging is illegal'' to another view that ''80 of deforestation in the region is because of illegal logging and corruption.''
Such revelations by NGOs are being welcome by some international forestry experts, since they have helped to break the silence regards the destruction of forests. ''Civil society groups deserve the credit for triggering the debate on forestry, particularly with the issue of deforestation,'' says Jagmohan Maini, who was Canada's chief negotiator on forestry issues at the 1992 Earth Summit in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. ''This goes back to the Rio Summit, where activists broke new ground by saying that all was not well with the forests in tropical countries.''
Illegal logging has only emerged as an issue of international concern and debate after 2000, he told IPS. ''The forestry sector has been slow to respond because those who work as foresters are employed by governments and it was not in their interest to blow the whistle,'' he added. ''They were constrained by the policies of their paymasters.''
Failure to stem the corruption will not only mean the stripping away of a country's natural assets by a powerful few, but the affected country failing to attract lucrative foreign investment seeking to pour funds into new forest plantations. ''Investments by pension funds and state funds in forestlands are huge and rising,'' says Dennis Neilson, director of DANA Ltd., an international forestry consulting company based in New Zealand. ''Pension funds have currently invested nearly 50 billion US. dollars in forest lands.''
The countries that have benefited from this financial windfall are the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. ''Overseas investments in forests started in 1992, because of the strong returns, it is a form of diversification of investments and there is low to moderate risk,'' he told IPS.
But Asian countries have been sidelined from this flow of money. All these funds have stayed away from investing in Asia ''because of a lack of good corporate governance, lack of land tenure security, illegal logging and corruption,'' Neilson added. ''This is a pity and Asian countries are losing because of this. There is between 5 to 15 billion dollars in new investments out there for the forestry sector.''
What is more, FAO officials admit that Asian countries appear unaware of this investment trend, where foreign funds are directed towards large timber plantations to supply the world's demand for wood products. ''At the senior level where forest policy is discussed, there is little awareness of the large amounts of capital out there for forestry,'' says Patrick Durst, FAO's senior forestry officer for Asia and the Pacific.
But he conceded in an IPS interview that forest plantations will always be up against ''complicated situations in Asia,'' given the demand for land, the problems of ownership of land and population density. ''In almost all Asian countries, the governments claim ownership and tenure of forest lands.''
And in the countries that have industrial scale forest plantations -- such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam -- the profiles of the investors reveal a domestic flavour. In Indonesia, for instance, ''most of the companies involved in forest plantations are from Indonesia,'' says Durst. ''They look at the overall governance issues and the difficulties with corruption differently.''
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Oct 20 (IPS) - When a global anti-graft watchdog surveys the Asian landscape for corruption indicators, the continent's forests depleted by illegal logging invariably enter the picture.And as the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) notes, in countries where excessive corruption prevails, the destruction of natural resources, such as local forests, for private gain is not far behind. ''Illegal logging is a symptom of the disease of corruption,'' says Lisa Elges, TI's senior programme coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region. ''In countries where deforestation is predominant, corruption is very high.''