Two Worlds Collide
How construction in Japan is driving destruction in Malaysia's last rainforests.
Will Japan change its ways ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Few people would associate Tokyo’s iconic skyline with the rugged rainforests of Malaysia, but the rise of one is literally being built on the fall of the other. Major construction sites across the city contain the remains of one of the world’s most imperilled rainforests.
As Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, eight new venues will be built, part of an expected construction boom. Japan has committed to making the Tokyo games a model of sustainability, but the current practices of its construction industry raise questions about its ability to deliver.
Japan imports more plywood from tropical forests than any other country, which feeds its huge construction and housing industries. Half of this comes from the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Sarawak is losing its tropical rainforests faster than anywhere else on earth, driven by a timber industry riddled with corruption and illegality.
This exposé, the result of a multi-year investigation, explains how Japan’s construction industry is sourcing from major Sarawak logging companies which are well documented to have been involved in illegal and massively destructive logging in the state’s vanishing rainforests. It also details the plight of indigenous communities on the front lines of a long and sometimes violent struggle to prevent logging in their ancestral forests.
A culture under siege
Thomas Pelutan’s village of Long Sepigen sits on a spur of the Selungo river, which flows through the mountainous interior of Sarawak.
The village is a closely knit cluster of wooden houses, raised on stilts several metres from the ground. Thomas’ wide veranda looks out onto small farms and valleys of dense rainforest, whose high ridge lines catch the last light of day.
Beneath this veneer of tranquility is a fanfare of sound – the violin-like strings of empress cicadas, the cackle of hornbills, and the hypnotic whoop of gibbons ring out above the quiet cacophony of the forest’s more modest inhabitants.
Thomas was born in these forests and considers them the ancestral home of his tribe, the Penan. Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers, today nearly all Penan communities have settled in small villages like Long Sepigen, but rely on the bounty of the forest for their daily needs.
Leaves are used to sand wood into blowpipes or boats, to weave roofs, or to make balms that cure illness. Glues from plants are used to trap birds, and toxic latex poisons the tips of hunting darts.
The Penan's forests are steeped in memory and cultural significance. Old growth trees bear marks made from the latex tapping of ancestors, sometimes a century old. All plants are considered sacred, with souls just like humans, and landmarks like streams, caves, or rapids hold spiritual meaning.
These communities are now encircled by a network of crude dirt roads carved into their forests, and industrial machinery, poised to move in. Their land is one of the last frontiers for Sarawak’s insatiable logging industry.
The state of Sarawak, which is around half the size of the UK, is a disproportionately big player in the tropical timber trade. It exports more tropical timber each year than all of Africa.
The Sarawak government has long tried to deflect criticism of its forest policies, claiming that its logging industry is sustainable. But keen-eyed satellites tell a different story.
Malaysia’s Borneo has the world’s highest rate of tropical forest loss. What was once an uninterrupted green canopy of intact rainforest is now a shrinking island, rapidly being replaced by logged out scrubland and agricultural plantations.
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 business of destruction
This devastation might suggest that Sarawak’s logging industry was out of control, but it has been well choreographed. The logging companies have unofficial backers in the highest levels of state politics.
Until his resignation in February 2014, Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, presided over the allocation of land and timber licenses for 30 years. During this time Taib, members of his family, and other cronies are believed to have amassed huge personal fortunes. A culture of backdoor deals, bribes and kickbacks permeates the land and forestry sectors.
Taib’s successor, Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, has surprised many by recently acknowledging the extent of the corruption and illegality in the forestry sector, and pledging to combat it.
While this offers hope for reform, recent satellite imagery of logging operations previously hidden from the world shows the staggering scope of the destruction taking place.
Samling and Shin Yang are two of Malaysia’s biggest timber companies, with operations that span the globe. Both are major suppliers of timber products to Japan. Their largest logging concessions sit within the Heart of Borneo, a cross-border conservation initiative between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, covering some of Sarawak's last areas of intact rainforest.
Within the Heart of Borneo, Shin Yang is decimating over forty soccer pitches of virgin rainforest a day, in an area the Sarawak government has proposed as a national park.
Nearby, Samling is rapidly expanding its destructive logging in forests claimed by the Penan, and appears to have made recent inroads into an existing national park.
A closer look at these companies’ operations using high resolution satellite images raises questions about their compliance with Sarawak’s forest laws, particularly in light of past reports documenting illegal activities.
Neither company responded to Global Witness’s request for comment on these allegations, although Samling has in the past refuted allegations of illegal logging.
in Shin Yang logging concession
Since the 1990s, Caterpillar tractors have been clawing their way into Penan land without their permission.
The Penan people may be the rainforest's oldest inhabitants, but their objection to logging has made them a thorn in the side of the logging industry and its allies in government.
The Sarawak government has refused to recognise their rights to their traditional lands, which are enshrined in state law and the Malaysian constitution. Instead, former Chief Minister Taib doled out timber licenses covering vast areas of rainforest to logging companies headquartered in distant cities.
Thomas and his community have been taking a stand against Samling’s encroachment into their forests. At best their protests have been met with government indifference, at worst with violent crackdowns and handcuffs.
In 1998, representatives of Long Sepigen, neighboring Long Kerong, and two other Penan communities in Sarawak filed a court case against Samling and the Sarawak government over the issuance of timber licenses that cover 55,000 hectares of forest they claim to be theirs.
The village headman of Long Kerong, Kelesau Na’an, who led the case and was an outspoken critic of logging in Penan territory, went missing in 2007 during a routine trip to inspect his traps. His remains were found two months later, and members of his community allege he was murdered because of his opposition to logging. The case was never properly investigated by the government.
Sixteen years after filing their land claim, Kelesau’s family and the four communities are still waiting for a decision. Neighboring Penan communities have also turned to the courts to defend their traditional lands from encroachment by loggers.
In 2012, the leaders of 18 Penan communities put forward a proposal for a 163,000 hectare Penan Peace Park, to protect their forests and promote forms of economic and social development other than large-scale logging.
Indigenous communities across Sarawak have filed over a hundred cases in the courts, suing the government and companies for encroachment onto their ancestral lands. Logging and land clearance usually continue while cases are pending, meaning communities’ legal victories often come too late to save their forests.
in Sarawak's courts
by six Penan villages (blue)
logging concessions (yellow)
observed by satellite in 2010 (red)
A booming trade with Japan
The plight of the Penan is closely intertwined with timber consumption in Japan.
Taken from the majestic jungles of Borneo, many Sarawak trees end life as plywood on Japan’s construction sites, often used to make disposable moulds to set concrete which are used two or three times and then thrown away. These moulds could be made from more sustainable materials, including wood sourced from Japan's own extensive forests. Many of Japan's forests were planted over the last century and have fallen into neglect after the domestic forestry industry was decimated by an influx of cheap timber from Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Japan imports roughly 100 million sheets of plywood a year from Sarawak. Placed in a row they would stretch 1800 kilometers, from Tokyo to Beijing. This is the most valuable flow of tropical timber in the world.
Well known Japanese businesses are key players in this timber trade. Major importers include Sojitz, Itochu, Sumitomo Forestry, Sumisho-Mitsuibussan Kenzai, Marubeni Kenzai, Toyo Materia and Japan Kenzai, and their subsidiaries. Itochu has informed Global Witness of its initial efforts to assess the operations of its Sarawak suppliers. Sumitomo Forestry and Sojitz have also indicated they are investigating the issues raised by Global Witness.
Global Witness investigators visited major construction sites across Tokyo and confirmed the common use of plywood produced by Shin Yang or its subsidiaries.
Major construction companies including Shimizu Corporation, Kajima Corporation, and Taisei Corporation are overseeing the projects, although sub-contractors are typically used for different aspects of the building process. The contractors involved in concrete formwork have been slow to adopt alternatives to tropical plywood for building moulds.
Some companies have indicated they are taking steps to review their sourcing practices and look into sustainable alternatives to tropical plywood. Taisei Corporation publicly reports on the amount of tropical plywood it uses for concrete formwork as part of an effort to increase the use of alternative materials. Kajima Corporation has stated that it is trying to change its sourcing practices and is also looking into alternatives. Shimizu Corporation says it is raising the issue of illegal logging in Sarawak with its procurement office and contractors, and is reviewing the use of plywood in the East Ueno construction project mentioned in this article.
However, the widespread use of timber from Shin Yang, a company involved in grossly unsustainable and potentially illegal operations, on the construction sites visited by Global Witness is indicative of a wider problem.
Japan’s timber importers and construction industry need to put into place measures to check that the wood they use is sustainable, legal, and free of land rights violations. And the Japanese government needs to prohibit the trade in illegal wood, as the United States, EU and Australia have already done.
If standard industry practices continues, showcase Olympic construction projects are at risk of using timber sourced from highly destructive logging operations in Sarawak, in some cases involving conflicts with indigenous communities over land and potentially illegal logging.
The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee told Global Witness that construction companies have yet to be hired and that it is fully committed to organising a sustainable Olympic games and will be developing a policy that incorporates strict criteria to meet sustainability standards.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics provides an opportunity for Japan to show leadership and steer its construction industry in a new and more sustainable direction that will have benefits at home and abroad.
Time is running out for the forests of Sarawak.