Tokyo 2020 Olympics at what cost?

Japan marks the 50th  anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games with grand festivities. The hosting of the games brought prestige and national pride — a benchmark of economic development following the World War II.

This year’s grand event, however, is marred with controversies. Conservation groups accused the Olympic committee of causing forest destruction in the province of Sarawak, Malaysia where the timber used to construct Olympic venues are sourced out by a giant logging company, Shin Yang.

Last month, about 47 civil society organisations asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 Olympic authorities to stop exploiting tropical forests and violating human rights in the construction and implementation of the games. The groups are calling for full transparency and to end the use of rainforest wood to construct Olympic facilities, including the new National Olympic Stadium.

But the appeal does not stop the construction of venues.

Amid the games’ golden anniversary, Malaysia’s indigenous leader appealed to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Matu Tugang, head of the Indigenous Penan community of Long Jaik from Sarawak, asked Abe to help stop Japan’s use of controversial wood from Shin Yang.

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The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee during a ceremony on Oct 10 to celebrate the 50th year since the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Games.

NGOs gathered evidence at the construction site in April which confirmed the use of plywood supplied by Shin Yang. The company has been allegedly logging in the area of Long Jaik for almost two decades and has previously been implicated in illegal logging, rainforest destruction, and human rights abuses.

The community of Long Jaik has been fighting with blockades to protect their forests against Shin Yang’s logging and conversion to oil palm plantations. The community has also an ongoing lawsuit against Shin Yang for violating their customary rights.

In a last attempt to save their remaining forests, the headman is turning to Shin Yang’s buyers in Japan and asking Abe to intervene.

SEE ALSO: Japan’s bid to go smoke-free for 2020 Olympics faces strong resistance

In the letter, headman Tugang said Shin Yang had destructive logging practices and the company disregarded community’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Tugang accused Shin Yang to have been logging aggressively in their village.

“When their tractors extract a log, they just bulldoze everything around… Shin Yang has been logging our ancestral forests without our permission or consent. They have never asked us for our opinion or needs,” Tugang said.

 Olympic Committee non-adherence to environmental practices

The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) promised to adopt environmentally sound practices and to contribute to global environmental protection through continual efforts to improve its environmental management system.

In its action agenda, it aimed to support green products when making purchases, to obey environmental laws and guidelines, and to promote internal environmental educational initiatives to ensure that all JOC staff fully understand.

The basic principles for sustainable sourcing are shown giving utmost importance on how products and services are supplied, the origins of products and services and the resources from which they are made, compliance with the sourcing code throughout the supply chains, and the effective use of resources.

Olympic Committee Criticized

However, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo Olympic authorities have been the subject of relentless criticism from an international coalition of civil society organisations critical of Tokyo 2020’s poor timber sourcing standards and lack of transparency in their timber supply chain. Despite repeated demands to disclose the origin of the timber in use for the Olympics and to end the use of Shin Yang wood and other

Despite repeated demands to disclose the origin of the timber in use for the Olympics and to end the use of Shin Yang wood and other high-risk timber, authorities have failed to respond to NGO concerns.

NGOs civic action against Tokyo for lack of transparency

Last month, about 47 civil society organisations have asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 Olympic authorities to stop exploit tropical forests.

At the IOC Executive Board Meeting in Lima, Peru, the groups sent a letter reiterating grave and mounting concerns about the legitimacy and accountability of IOC’s sustainability commitments and the reputation and credibility of the Olympic games.

Hana Heineken of Rainforest Action Network, along with other NGOs, said the Tokyo Olympic authorities are not transparent about the use of massive volumes of tropical wood to construct the new National Olympic Stadium.

SEE ALSO: JJapan: 2020 Olympics brings baseball event to recovering Fukushima

They claim that the IOC’s failure to address the obvious risk of unsustainability is a clear breach of its own commitment to “include sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games.”

In particular, they point to a major loophole in the Tokyo 2020 procurement policy that allows wood used for concrete formwork to be exempted from the policy’s environmental, labour and human rights requirements, despite the majority of this type of wood in Japan coming from the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia where problems of illegal logging, rainforest destruction, and land rights violations persist.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 and economic powerhouse

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Japanese torchbearers with the 1964 Olympic flame relay team run through the rain on their way to the Olympic Stadium in October 1964 in Tokyo, Japan. (Pic: AP)

The Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964 gave Japan a chance to present itself to the world as a friendly, tech leader redeeming itself from the transgressions of war. Japan will host the prestigious event for the fourth time in 2020, another opportunity for Tokyo to showcase the innovation of new technologies.

Tokyo’s organizing committee chief executive Toshiro Muto said plans were underway to show off high-tech features like hydrogen-powered vehicles for athlete transportation and smartphone tools to aid tourists. “We have the potential to make this Olympic Games wonderful that the people of the world are going to admire.”

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The Japanese government will showcase hydrogen fuel-cell technology to the world in 2020. Source: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Japan Sport Council

Many redevelopment projects are underway in central Tokyo and elsewhere, as the capital prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, the games will not go without mention of the environmental impacts.

In the construction of venues and other facilities, there is a shortage of wood. Hard tropical plywood is essential to making concrete formwork. Even though the quality of formwork plywood made from Japan-grown trees is improving, it is not enough to fully compensate for reduced shipments from Malaysia.

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[Book Review] Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia

Image via Amazon.

‘Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia’ by Lukas Straumann is a controversial book that uncovers the modus operandi of a multi-billion timber industry accused of wiping out the ancient rainforests of Sarawak, home of the last nomadic tribes of Southeast Asia in the heart of Borneo, Malaysia.

It argues two major points: first, the violations of  indigenous people’s rights, including plunder of their source of subsistence; and second, fraud and deceit spawned into the global financial system perpetrated by logging barons.

Straumann calls for the prosecution of criminals who are responsible for the destruction of pristine rainforests, displacement of people, and death of indigenous cultures. It invites a course of action to salvage the remaining forests in Borneo. The book raises questions such as: Is here a hope and redemption for the indigenous people? What lies ahead in this ravaged wilderness? Is palm oil or 12 mega-dams the answer to bail out communities from poverty? What are the implications of this crime for the rest of humanity?

The book also questions the credibility of judicial systems, the police, the FBI, the United Nations’ agencies, Interpol, and other international watchdogs mandated to protect human rights, stop corruption, and to ensure environmental sustainability.

The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), like other NGOs, works for social and environmental causes. BMF has exerted all means to seek justice for the rainforests, the Penans, and the victims of reprisal. However, Straumann is far from optimistic.

The book dissects the system of corruption and environmental crime that befell Sarawak. A model that examines the intricate details of its mechanism, it leads to the understanding of the system that spreads throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, and beyond. It identifies who’s who in the business and the flow of bribe money, fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering.

Sarawak is the epicentre of environmental disaster with a trail of destruction intruding and expanding into Papua New Guinea, Guyana, Equatorial Guinea, Cambodia, and other territories. To know Sarawak is to know what happened in the other countries, perpetuated by the same logging companies.

Fingers are pointed at the Rolls Royce-driving prominent statesman Abdul Taib Mahmud: “The Most Honourable Chief Minister of Sarawak.” He rose to power in 1986 with the help of his uncle and ruled for three decades. While in office, he allegedly amassed assets totalling US$15 billion. He heads a business empire scattered all over the world and shared among family members. His real estate portfolio is scattered throughout Ottawa, San Francisco, Seattle, London, Adelaide, Hong Kong and Malaysia. He forged global connections with logging barons, financial kingpins, and corrupt politicians in countries where timber is ready for disposal.

The Timber Industry

The book unravels how the timber trade works with the same principles throughout Asia. Logging companies have to pay hefty bribes in exchange for logging concessions. This is especially true in less developed countries where corruption is rife. Bribe money also allows loggers to cut trees beyond agreed limits.

Straumann identifies the movement of timber from its origin to export destinations. Along with it is the flow of more bribe money to “grease” the export processes. Overseas, money is laundered via financial conduits and using various cronies as fronts.

Straumann names the major logging companies, the “Dirty 6” including Samling Group, Rimbunan Hijau, WTK Group, Ta Ann Group, KTS Group, and Shin Yang Group — all related to Taib’s clan and associates. Major markets include Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan, to name a few.

The forest of Sarawak alone is given to four logging companies, all involved in clearing 18 million hectares of forests around the world and transforming them into palm oil plantations.

Loggers operate in poor and vulnerable countries, while real estate and related businesses are invested in more developed countries.

In the book, Tasmania demonstrated its power to stop bulldozers from clearing the wilderness. An activist became a media sensation when she climbed a 60-meter-high eucalyptus tree which she named the “Observer Tree” and sat there for 449 days to deter the Ta Ann Group.

Taib probably cannot betray his Colombo Plan benefactor. He got his law degree from Adelaide University, a beneficiary of Australia’s post-war scholarship. He later made donations amounting to $7 million to the university’s Centre for Environmental Law and in return he was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 2008, a courtyard was named after him.

The Adelaide University Environmental Collective holds a rally to pressure the Vice Chancellor of the Uni to change the name of the Taib Mahmud courtyard. (Photo: Supplied)

The Adelaide University Environmental Collective holds a rally to pressure the Vice Chancellor of the Uni to change the name of the Taib Mahmud courtyard. (Photo: Supplied)

 

Brazilians were also up in arms against logging into the Amazon rainforest and, so far, they have succeeded driving out the timber mafia.

Other regions, however, are not as lucky as Tasmania or Brazil and they can be exploited anytime at Taib’s whim, the book suggests.

Bullying Tactics

Opposition to the logging brings repercussions. Ross Boyert, an insider who tipped off Straumann on the inside operation, faced the consequence of backflipping. Boyert filed a legal suit against Taib including breach of contract, fraud, and infringement of labor laws. Boyert also attempted to expose Taib’s properties overseas with proxy ownership among his kin. As a result, he was stalked, bullied, and psychologically tortured before he committed suicide.

Bruno Manser, the founder of BMF, is one of the most vocal activists that speak for the Penans. He explored Borneo and lived in the rainforests with the indigenous people. He has been on the watch list of Taib and was warned not to go back to Sarawak. He defied warnings, went back, and in 2000, he disappeared in the forest without a trace. In 2005, BMF officially announced he is presumed dead.

Penan activists were not spared. Harrison Ngua, for example, who was working for Sahabat Alam Malaysia, an environmental and human rights organization, was jailed for months while he was blindfolded and interrogated.

Hope for the Rainforest

The rainforest of Sarawak is one of the ancient rainforests explored by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a contemporary of Charles Darwin. It contains some of the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet.  It has been a home of the nomads for many generations —until the loggers came.

Straumann describes the helplessness of the Penans as they watched from the sidelines heavy machinery cleared the rainforests. The last “noble savages” of Southeast Asia were robbed in a broad daylight –  right before their eyes.

As of writing and publication of the book, Straumann has suggested the removal of Taib  from power. But even so, what is done cannot be undone.

It could be said that the logging industry does not monopolize environmental destruction, but Sarawak is symptomatic of a bigger issue of our time. The coal, seam gas, rare earths, and other resources industries have been drilling and extracting to satisfy insatiable greed for profits. The Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, the Arctic in the North Pole, and the Pacific Ocean’s bed are but few other examples where multinational companies are destroying the environment. Grassroots around the world are now standing in the gap to pressure governments and banking institutions to stop the madness once and for all.

James Lovelock came up with Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the planet is a  self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep itself healthy by controlling the interconnections of the chemical and physical environment. He likens the planet to a nurturing mother capable of renewal and regeneration. But with the scale, magnitude, and pace of destruction, scientists predict a bleak future. Humans have been destroying the planet’s life-support system beyond its capacity to regenerate.

Australia’s leading scientist, Tim Flannery, in his book ‘Here on Earth’ (2010), pleads a cause for planetary justice. He argues there is a new awakening of humanity that can give hope to the survival of the planet.  He suggests people need compassion and to care more than ever before.

Straumann, however, grapples for a solution. Perhaps, the motto of the White Rajahs for the original inhabitants of Borneo would somehow help: “Dum spiro spero (As long as I breath, I hope) — for what dies last is the hope for justice and a better future.”

The Malaysian government wanted this book banned. Taib already lodged a full probe into its allegations. Straumann, nonetheless, is unfazed.

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* Some of the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s

The print and Kindle editions of ‘Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia’ can be bought on Amazon.com