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10:49 24 November 2015

OPINION: Consider the environment for the Tokyo Olympics

By Rick Jacobsen
TOKYO, Nov. 24, Kyodo

Japan has committed to making the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games sustainable, but the current practices of its construction industry raise questions about its ability to deliver. Japan's decision to rethink the design of its Olympic stadium presents an important opportunity to ensure that this and other Olympic construction projects are not built on the destruction of Asia's last rainforests.

Japan is the world's largest importer of plywood sourced from tropical rainforests, much of it used by the construction industry. About half of these imports come from the endangered rainforests of the State of Sarawak, Malaysia. The forests of Sarawak are being cleared at one of the fastest rates in the world. Japan's voracious consumption of timber from Sarawak is fueling rainforest destruction and corruption, and enriching a logging industry riddled with illegality.

Last year, investigations we carried out in Tokyo confirmed the widespread use of tropical plywood from Sarawak as disposable concrete casting molds in construction projects. One of the suppliers of this plywood is Shin Yang, a major Malaysian logging company involved in highly unsustainable and potentially illegal operations, including large-scale rainforest destruction inside a conservation area.

The Sarawak government has handed out land and logging licenses covering extensive areas of forested land to well-connected companies. In response, indigenous communities who have had their ancestral lands taken have filed over a hundred court cases. Our investigations revealed evidence of high level corruption in the process of allocating plantation and logging licenses, and Sarawak's head of State has recently acknowledged rampant corruption and illegality in the forestry sector. It remains to be seen whether he can stand up to the state's powerful logging interests.

Illegal logging is not unique to Sarawak. It is a global problem that threatens the livelihoods of millions of indigenous people, our planet's biodiversity, and the stability of our climate. Illegal logging fuels corruption and is a major source of financing for international criminal organizations.

If standard industry practices continue, there is a high risk that Olympic-related construction projects could use timber sourced from illegal logging operations. Japanese companies must do their part to ensure the timber they put on the Japanese market is legal and sustainable. Itochu Corporation and Sojitz Corporation's recent adoption of a procurement policy for wood and paper products is an important first step, but the key is implementation. Where risks in the supply chain are apparent, companies must carry out or obtain credible, independent verification that the timber they source is responsibly harvested. Where such verification is not possible, they must stop sourcing.

Ultimately, the Japanese government needs to establish legislation that requires companies to undertake due diligence for timber legality and market only legal timber.

The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee has stated it is fully committed to organizing a sustainable Olympic Games and will be developing a policy that incorporates strict sustainability criteria. By taking action now, Japan has the opportunity to ensure a truly sustainable 2020 Olympics and to show the world it is taking leadership on this issue.

(Rick Jacobsen leads the International Forest Policy team at Global Witness, an international NGO that campaigns for systemic change by exposing the economic networks behind conflict, corruption and environmental destruction. He is based in Washington, DC)




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