Pro-deforestation group calls for weakening of U.S. law against illegal logging

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
April 14, 2011

A group that lobbies on behalf of forestry conglomerates in Indonesia and Malaysia is calling on the U.S. to roll back legislation intended to fight illegal logging.

World Growth International, a Washington D.C.-based group that sometimes portrays itself as a humanitarian organization, yet consistently pushes policies that favor industrial forestry interests over those of rural communities, has submitted formal comments to the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) review of the implementation of the revised Lacey Act provisions that prohibit trade in illegally logged wood products, including timber and paper. World Growth International calls the 2008 Lacey Act amendments "de facto trade barriers" that impose "costly and burdensome regulations for entry into the US market."

The Lacey Act, which was enacted in 1900 by William F. McKinley, holds U.S. companies to environmental laws in the countries from which they source plant and wildlife products. All illegally logged wood products are open to seizure under the law. Penalties for violating the Lacey Act range from fines to jail time.

asia pulp & paper concession
APP has lately focused on public relations and marketing to rehabilitate its image. It has released a number of sustainably reports and regularly runs full-page advertisements in publications like The Economist touting its environmental record. APP has also used more questionable methods, including hiring groups like World Growth International and the Tea Party-affiliated Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity to launch public attacks on companies that have dropped its products and environmental organizations that have raised concerns about its environmental conduct. APP's parent, Sinar Mas Group, recently hired Cameron Hume, the former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, as an "adviser". It is unclear whether Hume's hiring was related to the trade dispute or what role the former ambassador plays at the conglomerate. World Growth International is headed by another former diplomat: Alan Oxley. (Picture: concession belonging to an APP subsidiary. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)
World Growth International's complaint to APHIS (the formal comment period ends today) may be linked to its advocacy work for Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a China-based logging company that was recently slapped with an anti-dumping tariff on some of its paper products by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The ruling hit APP at a time when it was already suffering from customer defections due its complaints over its environmental and human rights record in Indonesia. APP has lost Carrefour, Tesco, Kraft, Unisource, Staples, Walmart (excluding Walmart-China), Ricoh, Woolworths, Gucci, H&M, and Fuji Xerox, among others, since 2007. It also lost the right to use the FSC eco-certification label on its products.

World Growth International, along with the Tea Party-affiliated Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity, have aggressively campaigned on APP's behalf over the past year. In the process, the groups have made some controversial claims on the environmental and economic performance of the pulp and paper sector, including its role in in deforestation and contribution to poverty alleviation in Indonesia.

World Growth International's positions have won it many critics. In December 2010, Agus Purnomo, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's special assistant on climate change, said World Growth International's chairman Alan Oxley was misrepresenting the objectives of Indonesia's proposed moratorium on new concessions in primary forest areas and peatlands. Last November, the group run by Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her tree-planting campaign in Africa, blasted World Growth International for using her name to imply that she supports the large-scale conversion of tropical forests for industrial plantations. And in October, a group of prominent scientists castigated Oxley. In an open letter the scientists identify World Growth International and his marketing firm, ITS Global, as front groups for the palm oil, timber, and wood-pulp industries.

APP claims it is protecting the environment and alleviating poverty in Indonesia. But even its economic claims are now being questioned. Independent research has shown that the pulp and paper sector creates a relatively limited number of jobs relative to the amount of land it holds, while debt defaults, subsidies, and apparent tax evasion by some firms, reduce the industry's overall contribution to Indonesia's economy.

Sample of employment per hectare
APP says it employs roughly 70,000 people and holds 2.4 million hectares of concessions, or about one person per 34 hectares of concession, in Indonesia (or 1 worker per 20 ha if the area APP has set aside for conservation is excluded). For comparison, average smallholder holdings for agroforestry in West Java (Ginoga 2004) were 0.5 ha, 2 ha oil palm Indonesia-wide (IPOC 2009), and cacao 0.5 to 1.5 ha (Yasa 2007) (A smallholder is counted as a single person).
"A number of the key arguments of World Growth International, ITS Global, and Alan Oxley, represent significant distortions, misrepresentations, or misinterpretations of fact," wrote the scientists, led by William F. Laurance, a researcher at James Cook University.

"In other cases, the arguments they have presented amount to a 'muddying of the waters' which we argue is designed to defend the credibility of the corporations we believe are directly or indirectly supporting them financially. As such, World Growth International and ITS Global should be treated as lobbying or advocacy groups, not as independent think-tanks, and their arguments weighted accordingly."

Environmentalists are taking World Growth International's latest campaign against the Lacey Act as a call to action.

"This is a rallying cry for Americans who care about the environment to contact the government and APHIS to make it known that they support the Lacey Act," said Lafcadio Cortesi of the Rainforest Action Network, an activist group. "This is a classic example of an industrial lobby undermining the interests of the American people."

Asia Pulp & Paper did not return mongabay.com's request for comment on World Growth International's complaint or the Lacey Act. Analysis of paper fiber by the World Resources Institute and the Rainforest Action Network has found traces of ramin, a CITES protected species, indicating that some U.S. publishing companies may be in violation of the Lacey Act buy purchasing illegally sourced pulp.

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Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (April 14, 2011).

Pro-deforestation group calls for weakening of U.S. law against illegal logging.