The recent revelations that WWF was the source of an erroneous and unsubstantiated claim that the Himalayas may melt by 2035 has renewed concern about WWF’s credibility on forest conservation questions.
The London Telegraph found that the reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cited 16 WWF reports which were used as sources for claims which, contrary to IPCCC publishing rules, were not peer-reviewed.
In its capacity as an environmental activist, WWF has a record of making claims about forestry for over a decade that are exaggerated or cannot be substantiated. WWF accepts significant funding from Governments and donors to deliver conservation programs. Its integrity and credibility is important to that.
As far back as 1997, Danish academic, Bjorn Lomborg, illustrated problems with WWF claims. One was that two thirds of the world’s forests had been lost when the conventional figure was 20 to 25 per cent. Lomborg also found claims about extent of forest fires in Indonesia and the rate of deforestation in the Amazon were also unfounded.
A recent commentary in The Australian by World Growth Chairman, Alan Oxley, highlighted, contemporary instances of claims about forestry by WWF which cannot be substantiated. These concerned the rate of illegal forestry in Papua New Guinea and the share of illegal timber product in children’s books from China.
The response from WWF Australia CEO, Greg Bourne was illuminating. He did not deny these contentions or endorse the WWF figures.
The credibility of WWF claims is also relevant to its promotion of forest certification systems. Its reports which publish these claims are used to persuade businesses in the timber and paper industries to purchase certification of their activities by the forest certification system of the Forest Stewardship Council which was set up and is arguably controlled by WWF. Greenpeace regularly threatens to blacken the reputation of companies that do not use FSC certification.
Closer scrutiny of the activities and claims of environmental NGOs, particularly in the timber and forest industry, is warranted and necessary. They have played a central role in criticizing the industry and influencing and informing the debate on forestry without adequate scrutiny of the veracity or accuracy of their own claims.
The Copenhagen conference failed to produce either legally binding targets for emission reductions or an agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Undeterred, developed nations seem to be advancing the same goal by different means: offering aid to developing nations as incentives to implement the stillborn strategy.
Most recently, the United Kingdom pledged £50 million to Indonesia for “reversing the high rate of deforestation in the country”. The programs also sought to “strengthen regulations and create financial incentives to encourage the palm oil industry to grow on already degraded land, rather than natural forest”. The funding for the partnership comes from the United Kingdom’s £1.5 billion pledge under the ‘fast start’ package announced in Copenhagen.
The United States and Indonesia also signed a debt-for-nature agreement in June 2009, which represented the largest agreement of its kind. The agreement will see Indonesia’s debt payments reduced by $US30 million over eight years in return for Indonesia’s commitment to use that money to protect and restore tropical forests in Sumatra. The agreement was partially funded by contributions from two environmental NGOs.
The European Union is continuing its attempts to manipulate Indonesian forest policy through the negotiations on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), as the second meeting on the ‘voluntary partnership agreements’ (VPA) occurred in January. While a VPA is labelled “voluntary”, in truth developing nations must comply unless they wish to face trade restrictions. If FLEGT as proposed by the EU are implemented, the result would be to give import authorities in the EU the authority to direct forest policies in the FLEGT partner. If the EU disagrees with those forest policies, imports would be blocked. This would breach the WTO rights of exporters, but FLEGT gets around this by having both governments enter an international legal agreement which effectively voids the WTO rights of the exporter.
Moves by developed nations to control Indonesian forest policy and force a no conversion position are not only detrimental to poverty alleviation in Indonesia but also fail to tackle the real causes of deforestation. Forest conversion and the resulting agriculture and plantations are a crucial step in the economic development of the Indonesian economy. Deforestation is reduced by reducing poverty – not removing the means to alleviate poverty.
Late last year the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere project approved a proposal developed by Indonesian pulp and paper group, APP and Sinar Mas, to create biosphere reserve in Riau, Indonesia. The Giam Siak Kecil – Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve (GSK-BB) covers 178,000 hectares. This is the first time UNESCO has approved a biosphere project developed by a private company. The success of this project contrasts with WWF’s failed efforts to promote forest conservation in Sumatra.
UNESCO biospheres are an imaginative concept where in selected regions, resources are pooled to support active conservation programs while at the same time local human and commercial activity continues. For years conservationists argued that people had to be removed if biodiversity was to be protected. Mainstream environmental groups now accept this is impracticable, but still struggle to develop effective programs.
The GSK-BB reserve will cover “a peat land area in Sumatra featuring sustainable timber production and two wildlife reserves, which are home to the Sumatran tiger, elephant, tapir, and sun bear” and will be managed by a range of local government, non-governmental organisations, scientific community, environmental experts and the private sector.
The recognition of a biosphere reserve has been the culmination of 6 years of effort by Sinar Mas and partners to have the area conserved and recognised.
The success in implementing this project contrasts with the failure of WWF to promote a conservation national park at Tesso Nilo in Sumatra. This concept has been the formal backbone of the WWF forestry campaign in Indonesia. It has not succeeded. Since the conservation area was declared in 2004 the area has been encroached and degraded by illegal loggers and miners.
The reality is that WWF’s campaign focus in Indonesia is not conservation but restricting large scale commercial forestry which in Sumatra has contributed to one of the fastest rates of growth in Indonesia and generated jobs and prosperity.
Despite its direct experience with the difficulty of dealing with illegal loggers in Tesso Nilo, (WWF will have discovered the reality that most of them are small holders ) it continues to accuse the large plantation companies who log with legal licences and practice sustainable forestry of being responsible for illegal logging.
Questions need to be asked about just what WWF’s is aiming for? Perhaps donors have already done so. The gossip in Jakarta is that last year donor funding to WWF halved.
The Australian Government is struggling to implement an election commitment to ban imports of illegal timber. Will it resort to imposing a new layer of regulation on all timber production as is foreshadowed in the EU?
Despite the failure of consultants appointed by the Australian Government to find evidence of large scale imports of illegally logged timber, recent statements by Australia’s Forestry Minister, Tony Burke, indicate that the Australian Government is considering a law to make it illegal to purchase illegally logged timber. This move would follow precedents set in the European Parliament placing the onus on foresters to prove that the timber is legally sourced.
European family foresters have objected in Europe that this strategy to supposedly halt illegal imports (evidence of which is scant) will simply increase their costs and reduce their competitiveness. European officials have resorted to this artifice because WTO rules require imports and domestic products to be treated on equal terms.
Burke has reportedly rejected advice from a government commissioned report which recommended tackling illegal logging at its source through ‘capacity building measures’ such as financial and policy support. It has also been rumoured that the Government will expand the type of timber which may be considered illegal to include pulp and paper products.
This comes on top of recent campaigns by the Construction, Forestry and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Australian Plantation Products and Paper Industry Council (A3P) against the removal of anti-dumping duties on imports of toilet paper from Asia. Following an Indonesian official foreshadowing a complaint to the WTO over the imposition of anti-dumping duties, a Customs re-investigation of the duties found that there was no “material injury” caused to the Australian toilet paper industry by the imports.
The CFMEU and A3P campaign comes after radical environmental NGO Rainforest Action Network launched a similar case in the United States against paper imports from Indonesia.
Not only do these strategies result in classic protectionism that denies consumers lower cost product, it advances a global campaign to restrict sustainable commercial forestry in developing countries.
The strength of the Asia-Pacific’s forestry sector has been highlighted a joint report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“The Importance of China’s Forest products Markets to the UNECE Region” found that China now has the 5th largest forest area in the world and China’s forestry sector now accounts for 4.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.
However, while China’s forestry sector is growing quickly and now provides eight per cent of the world’s forestry exports, Chinese demand for timber is now far outstripping supply from the local forestry sector.
China is now the third largest importer of forestry products and is responsible for nine per cent of global imports. While China will continue to expand local supply, it is expected to remain highly reliant on imports in the coming years, making it a potentially important export market for the Asia-Pacific region.