World’s forests cut to feed voracious Japanese industry

by Stephen Hesse

For those who suffer from cedar pollen allergies, these dry, sunny days of spring are sheer torture. After Finland and Sweden, Japan has the most forest cover in the world: 67 percent. My itchy eyes tell me 98 percent of those trees must be cedar.

Not quite, but almost half of Japan’s forests are man-made, and most of those are monoculture, plantation cedar.

Clearly Japan needs a new forestry policy, something along the lines of Shakespeare’s “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Let’s level all the cedars (well, two thirds), and replant with leafy, fruit- and nut-bearing hardwoods.

This will not happen anytime soon, so under the laws of nature we have been sentenced to a reminder each spring of how disastrous, and long-term, shortsighted forestry policies can be.

Forests are just too valuable to be treated carelessly. They provide habitat to wildlife and other plants; they control soil erosion, regulate rainfall, steady the flow of ground water and sequester carbon, thus regulating climate. (According to the Worldwatch Institute, forest clearing generates 25 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.)

Even with plantation forests that could use culling, however, Japan prefers cheap imports. A 1996 Forestry White Paper reports that Japan imports 80 percent of its wood needs.

According to Global Witness, a British-based NGO, Japan’s hunger for imports consumes “37 percent of all internationally traded wood products.” Quite an appetite for only 2 percent of the world’s population.

Global Witness is so concerned about Japan’s role in forest destruction worldwide that it will present a report at Yale University March 31, calling Japan “the greatest contributor to global deforestation.”

The report will be available in English and Japanese this May. Soon after, the group intends to hold a conference in Japan with industry, government and NGO representatives.

Global Witness projects focus on the links between environmental and human rights abuses, especially the impact of natural resource exploitation on countries and their people. The timber report was produced in cooperation with IUCN.

According to the author, the report “highlights the role of Japanese industry in the destruction of the world’s forests through its insatiable demand for timber.” A secondary purpose of the report is to reinvigorate activities of environmental NGOs aimed at reducing timber consumption in Japan.

Providing detailed figures, the report documents wood resources and products being imported to Japan, the companies doing the importing, who is using the wood and how, and recommendations to rein in Japan’s over-consumption.

Global Witness believes that escalating demand for timber products (including wood chips for paper, logs, sawn wood, plywood and furniture) is one of the “greatest threats to the world’s forests.” Two others are poverty and increasing population pressures in forested nations.

Worldwatch Institute confirms this in its 1999 State of the World report. “In industrial countries, where most of the world’s commercial wood is produced, timber harvest is the primary cause of forest degradation,” says the report. “In developing nations, land clearing for agriculture and grazing combine with timber harvesting to reduce forest area. It is often timber harvesting, accompanied by roads that penetrate the forest and provide access to otherwise inaccessible places, that precipitates land clearing.”

According to Global Witness, “Reducing consumption and the demand for timber and wood products in Japan is key to preserving forests worldwide.” Nevertheless, despite severe criticism from the international community and Japanese NGOs, “massive and unsustainable levels of timber consumption have continued in Japan.”

Japan’s voracious consumption has been well documented, according to the report, as have the “exploitative activities of [Japanese] companies overseas.” Rather than reforming their purchasing and consumption patterns, however, “many companies have set up highly efficient public relations departments to counter allegations and deflect attention away from their activities.”

The Big Six general trading companies, or sogo shosha, that Global Witness is particularly concerned about are Mitsubishi Corp., Mitsui & Co. Ltd., Itochu & Co. Ltd., Sumitomo Corp., Marubeni Corp. and Nissho Iwai Corp.

These companies have been strongly criticized since the 1980s, and have “responded to pressure by establishing environmental departments to field criticisms and promote a greener image,” says the report. These efforts, the report adds, are no more than “greenwash,” coverups of “continuing destructive activities.”

The report notes that, “rather than making more information publicly available, the sogo shosha, Japan Lumber Importers Association, and the Japanese government no longer release timber import figures for fear of further criticism.” In a similar move, these corporations have also reduced their direct logging operations, and instead buy from Chinese companies that have taken over the cutting and hauling.

According to Global Witness, Japan is doing little to deal with the problem. “The government attitude to environmental affairs is similar to that of industry,” says the report.

At the same time, however, the government also believes it is crucial “to present an environmentally friendly image to the international community.” This duplicity could prove useful, the report states, as it could “provide a real opportunity for NGOs to increase pressure by exposing the ‘greenwash.’ “

Global Witness certainly has its work cut out. In a country where half the forest cover is monoculture plantations (and this is hailed as forestry success), taking on trading companies, the construction and paper industries and the governmental status quo is a challenge of Bunyanesque proportions.

This may be why the Global Witness report begins with a list of recommendations, 25 in all, for international NGOs, the Japanese Government and Japanese industry. Even if readers don’t get past the first page, the report still might do some good.