2020 Olympics: environmentalists call for probe into tropical wood procurement

A group of seven non-governmental organisations has called for an independent investigation to establish the origins of the tropical plywood being used in the construction of the new national Olympic stadium in Tokyo, Japan.

The NGOs say that the tropical formwork plywood being used in the stadium’s construction appears to originate from the notorious Malaysian logging and oil palm plantation company, Shin Yang.

Shin Yang is one of the “Big Six” logging companies in Sarawak.

The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund¹, Friends of the Earth Japan, the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, Markets for Change, the Rainforest Action Network, the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, and the Global Environmental Forum Japan have issued a joint statement saying that this would be a significant breach of Japan’s commitment to a sustainable 2020 Olympics.

“The International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympic organisers have been repeatedly informed about the high risk of using illegal and unsustainable timber for Olympic construction,” the NGOs stated.

Japan is the world’s second largest direct importer of tropical wood, largely in the form of plywood.

In an exposé entitled “Two Worlds Collide”, published in 2014, the NGO Global Witness states that Japan imports more plywood from tropical forests than any other country. Half of that plywood comes from the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where intensive logging is destroying some of the last remaining  rainforest and is threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous people who depend on the forest for their livelihoods.

Global Witness says that, since 1990, approximately one third of all timber exported by Sarawak has ended up in Japan.

“Put end to end, the sprawling network of logging roads carved into Sarawak’s rainforests over the past three decades would be long enough to circle the globe twice,” the NGO said.

In December last year, just days before construction started on the new Olympic stadium, more than forty environmental groups delivered a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in which they said that efforts by the Tokyo Olympic organisers and the Japanese government were inadequate to ensure that the timber used for the stadium’s construction would be legal and sustainable.

Environmental NGOs say that that failure to mitigate the risks of unsustainable timber being used for the stadium could endanger biodiversity, the climate, and local communities.

In December 2015, Global Witness issued a briefing explaining the risks inherent in Japan’s timber supply chain. It stated that Japan must urgently adopt new and effective measures “to ensure the timber used for construction projects, including new Olympic venues, is legal, sustainable, and free of human rights abuses”.

Global Witness said it had gathered evidence showing that timber linked to rainforest destruction, illegal logging, and human rights abuses could be found on construction sites across Tokyo.

“The findings call into question Japan’s ability to make good on its commitment to host a sustainable 2020 Olympic Games,” the NGO stated.

Shin Yang has been systematically logging and clearing pristine rainforest, including a large area in the transboundary conservation area known as the Heart of Borneo.

In its December 2015 briefing, Global Witness said: “By the end of 2014, Shin Yang was decimating a proposed national park in the Heart of Borneo at a rate of 9 km2 per month – the equivalent of 42 football pitches per day.

“High resolution satellite imagery taken in June 2014 shows extensive damage to previously intact rainforest canopy, severe erosion and landslides caused by road building and logging, and clearing of forest within metres of major rivers.”

Global Witness says the Japanese government needs to prohibit the trade in illegal wood, as the United States, the European Union, and Australia have done.

In a statement issued today (Thursday), the seven NGOs appealing for action say that, on April 3 this year, investigators found tropical plywood being used to mould concrete for the stadium construction with markings that appeared to belong to Shin Yang.

“The markings resemble other Shin Yang produced plywood sold in Japan,” the NGOs stated. “Use of tropical plywood at the stadium site was again confirmed on April 18.”

“Shin Yang is one of the most notorious exploiters of Sarawak’s tropical forests, and plywood from this company would fail to meet any sustainability criteria,” said Peg Putt from Markets for Change.

“Use of Shin Yang plywood would be a clear breach of Japan’s commitment to host a sustainable Olympics.”

Markets for Change is urging people to email the IOC demanding that it take  immediate steps to ensure that the 2020 Olympics “is not built on the destruction of Sarawak’s precious remaining forests”.

Nicholas Mujah from the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association said: “To use Shing Yang timber products is to deprive the vulnerable indigenous Penan and Iban peoples of their customary rights, livelihoods, and cultural practices.”

The seven NGOs state that local communities and former Shing Yang employees have independently alleged that the company hires armed gangsters to intimidate and assault those who voice concerns or act against its interests.

“Shin Yang is implicated in human rights abuses affecting indigenous people who claim customary rights to forest,” the NGOs state.

“The ‘E-panel’ marking on the plywood found at the Olympic construction site does not guarantee environmental sustainability or freedom from human rights abuses.”

The NGOs say the Tokyo Olympics organising committee has allowed a loophole in its wood products procurement policy that exempts formwork plywood that is used to mould concrete from environmental sustainability and human rights standards.

The only policy that is applied, the NGOs say, is Japan’s “green purchasing” verification system, known as the goho-wood system, which has been repeatedly criticised for allowing wood that is at high risk of being illegal to be imported into Japan as “legal wood”.

In a paper written in November 2014, an independent environmental policy analyst and lecturer at Japan’s Atomi University, Mari Momii, said that the system was not only voluntary, but had serious design weaknesses that limit its ability to eliminate illegal products from Japan’s market.

Junichi Mishiba from Friends of the Earth Japan said: “The national stadium is a building constructed by the national government and should be a place of national pride, but, given the weak social and environmental standards being applied to the Olympic construction and the preliminary evidence that wood from a rogue company is being used, we fear this could be a scandal for the Olympics and Japan.”

Mishiba said there should be an urgent investigation into how the Olympic organisers were procuring timber for the Olympics, “and immediate adoption of stronger measures to ensure the timber is legal, sustainable, and not associated with human rights abuses”.

The environmental groups want an investigation to be conducted by a credible third party environmental auditor. “Until the issue is resolved, no more tropical plywood should be utilised on site,” they stated.