“Without forest we would have no access to clean water as the source of life …Forest is like the skin covering our body.”

Chut Wutty  1964-2012

When the issue of ‘Blood Wood’ in Cambodia recently came to my attention, I was brought back to the time in 2008 at the launch of the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre on O’Connell Street in Dublin. On the day of the launch committed Irish activist Tom Roche of Just Forests, positioned himself outside of the building during the launch, peacefully demonstrating and raising awareness of the Office of Public Works sourcing of illegally logged wood that was used by the Centre for its hoarding.  Despite being a gathering of development minded individuals, Tom was viewed as a nuisance and was ignored. Social activists are rarely considered to be popular.

In evidence Tom gave to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the 12th May 2009 we get a sense of how long this has been an issue in Ireland:

“If one looks at the coloured document, one will see the letter. That only came in the recent past. It states that the OPW has had a timber procurement policy in place since 1987. If one looks at the photograph of the EU office, or of the Irish Aid building in Dublin which I took, both of those use Chinese ply-board, a sample of which I have brought to show the committee. If any organisation has a legitimate timber policy, it would not have this Chinese ply-board on its procurement policy. With due respect, the OPW’s letter is not worth the paper on which it is written because there is no validation of it.

…I could talk to members about this matter for two hours. However, the pictures in the document, such as that of the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, accepting the good wood policy guide at the Royal Institute of Architects, and what he said on that occasion with regard to forest certification are of much more value. There are also pictures of Mullingar’s new civic buildings and the Irish Aid information centre, which was officially opened by Deputy Bertie Ahern last year. With regard to the latter, I informed Deputy Bertie Ahern that illegal timber was used in the construction of the Irish Aid information centre. I also informed him that the Government is supporting development projects in Africa and said that it is not possible to have it both ways. With regard to the production of the documentation, my money was well spent.”

The issue of illegal logging is not new and has always been contentious. It is highly profitable and difficult to police. In Indonesia, 88% of logging in the country is illegal in some way; in Brazil 80% of Amazonian wood is illegally felled as is in Bolivia. In Africa, the statistics vary, but it is estimated that half of Cameroonian and Equatorial Guinea wood is illegally logged rising to 80% in Liberia, even in Russia, between 20-50% of wood is illegally sourced.

It’s an issue we are all remotely aware of, yet it seems to be once again at the back of people’s minds as we concentrate on the ‘recession.’ So while we are protecting our pockets, there remain those activists – mavericks or crusaders as they are sometimes referred to – who continue, tirelessly and often at the cost of their lives. The death of one such activist and the visual audit of wood products in my own home, re-ignited my interest.

In Cambodia, where it is said some 6,200 square kilometers of forest has been destroyed over the last 20 years, local activist Chut Wutty was murdered by government soldiers at an illegal logging site. In the same year, a 14 year old girl was killed during an armed siege against villagers who were opposing land eviction by a large corporation, and a local journalist, Hang Serei Odom, with a small Khmer-language newspaper was brutally murdered because he wrote about military collusion in the deforestation of a region on Cambodia’s northeast border with Vietnam. Globally, according to Global Witness, 711 activists, journalists and community members are reported to have been killed in the last decade – that’s more than one a week – in their quest to defend the rights to land and forests for access to natural resources.

China’s insatiable demand for wood to feed its booming economy is fuelling the current pressure for illegal logging to supply the country with rare luxury timber and industrial-purpose wood.  China is the top global importer of timber – both legal and illegal. According to think-tank Chatham House, in 2008 China shipped US$3.7 billion in stolen logs.  One of the authors states that

“The illegal logs still being cut each year, laid end to end, would stretch ten times around the Earth.”

Yet, not all the blame is to be landed at the feet of China. America is reported to be the top importer of illegally sourced wood products, mostly for plywood or veneers for commercial and home construction. But the money – and the risk – is in luxury timbers like rosewood, used in making musical instruments and fine furniture.

When you are next at home, in the shops, at school, take a look around you and note the many wood products you see. Consider our dependence on wood and wood products – don’t forget that paper starts off its life as wood.  Find out more about the how our desire for wood impacts on forest communities throughout the world, and also the long term effect on the environment and ultimately our future.

Consider the vital role of activists and pressure groups in bringing to our attention critical global issues. Appreciate their contribution in the fight for environmental and social justice and grateful for their conscientising how we individually are linked to the issues.


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