LONDON – A village leader from Borneo urged Japan on Wednesday to stop building its Olympic stadium with cheap timber that he says is obliterating traditional life for his indigenous people.
Bilong Oyoi, whose Penan people live in Borneo’s Malaysian rain forests, handed a petition of 140,000 signatures to Tokyo’s embassy in Bern, Switzerland, demanding it halt use of deforestation-linked tropical timber in its Olympic venues.
Japan is hosting the 2020 Games with a wooden latticed stadium, now under construction, as the dramatic centerpiece.
But last month, a group of charities said some timber came from a Malaysian logging giant that is accused of deforestation and human rights violations, in breach of Japan’s pledge to hold a sustainable Olympics and design a truly green stadium.
Oyoi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he hoped Japanese officials would understand that by using cheap timber, they were contributing to the death of traditional life for indigenous groups in Sarawak state, on the Malaysian part of Borneo island.
“We lost our livelihoods because the water is polluted by the logging. The situation is becoming worse and worse. Because of the logging it is now very difficult to hunt and fish and to survive,” Oyoi said by telephone.
“Our wish is that this petition be accepted by Japan and that they stop importing timber from Sarawak that encroaches the land of the Penan and indigenous people,” he added.
The International Olympic Committee said it had been assured that all wood used for the stadium is certified as sustainable.
“We have full confidence that Tokyo 2020 is on target to reach their sustainability goals,” it told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Japan’s Sport Council (JSC), the government body in charge of building Olympic venues, did not immediately respond to questions.
Wednesday’s petition followed an investigation by charities in April that twice found plywood from a Borneo sawmill at the construction site of the wooden stadium. At that time, the JSC said tropical timber was being used but that it met certification standards agreed by Japan’s Olympic organizers.
On April 27, Olympic authorities told a group of seven environmental and rights organizations, including Global Witness and Rainforest Action Network, that timber came from a plywood mill in Bintulu, Sarawak.
The mill sources timber from areas that are subject to an ongoing lawsuit by indigenous communities over violations to their customary right to land, said the charities in their statement on Wednesday.
Penan leaders were invited to Switzerland by a Basel-based rain forest charity, Bruno Manser Fund, to raise awareness of rights abuses in Sarawak.
The Olympic organizers agreed sourcing rules prior to the construction to ensure a sustainable games in 2020.
But Rainforest Action Network said a provision in the code exempted certain types of cheap plywood used to shape concrete, like the timber found in the stadium site.
Rights groups have demanded an overhaul of procurement and an investigation into the legality and sustainability of tropical wood.
Tokyo’s Olympic stadium will be constructed around an unusual set of wooden lattices — a design conceived by architect Kengo Kuma to harmonize with a forest of oak and camphor trees surrounding the nearby Meiji shrine in the Japanese capital.
Japan’s government has said the wooden design was chosen over competing proposals due to its fast construction time and sensitivity to the environment.
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