Mention forests in Australia and the mental compass of most Australians will point south to Tasmania. But it’s to the north of Australia where the country’s national interest and forests most intersect - in the tropical rainforests of the Asia-Pacific region.
Unlike never before, the region needs Australia’s forestry expertise. Unlike never before, forestry is now vitally important to Australia and the Asian-Pacific for peace and prosperity. Not surprisingly, these issues feature highly at a major international conference on Forests, Wood and Livelihoods hosted by the Crawford Fund in Canberra recently.
Forests make a huge contribution to reducing poverty in the developing economies that lay on Australia’s doorstep. Half the Solomon Island’s export revenue comes from its forest products. In Indonesia, the figure in 2004 was 13 per cent - more than double the amount it received in foreign aid that year. For Papua New Guinea, the figure is A$170 million annually - a tidy sum for a population of 5.5 million people. Regrettably, most of this money goes to Malaysian logging companies with little interest in PNG’s development.
Each of these countries benefit significantly from Australia’s generosity, either in the form of taxpayers’ aid dollars, technical assistance, or military support. And in each of these countries, the future of forests looks shaky at best. If forestry no longer provides jobs and income to the needy - whether due to over-harvesting, illegal logging, fires, conflict or simply bad management - regional stability will suffer, and dependency on Australian aid is likely to increase.
Much of Australia’s aid focuses on helping governments become more efficient, transparent and accountable - the hallmarks of good governance. And yet for much of the region, forestry practices are synonymous with the opposite - with bribery, tax evasion and human rights abuses.
It is no wonder that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared fighting illegal-logging as one of his Government’s top priorities, along with eradicating corruption. For him it is not just a question of a few billion dollars in unpaid taxes, it is about establishing the rule of law and attracting international investors. It is also about improving his nation’s reputation, providing jobs, reducing poverty and, ultimately, ensuring social stability. The same arguments apply to anywhere in the Asia-Pacific region where a dose of good forestry governance could improve the welfare of millions of rural poor.
But let’s not forget the environmental issues. Forests are not only about income generation. They also provide clean drinking water, reduce global warming and provide a habitat for endangered species. We know these things already. Nevertheless, each year millions of hectares of forest are lost through illegal logging and forest fires that inflict enormous environmental and health costs on people and economies across South-East Asia.
As unique plants and animals vanish with the destruction of the forests, important sources of chemicals for medicinal and industrial use also vanish. No one can say for certain whether a cure for HIV or SARS lies waiting to be discovered under a tropical canopy. But one thing is certain - a cure won’t be found in the forest if the forest is no longer there.
Forests are important to Australia’s national interest in many other ways too. None less so than in the links between forests and peace, conflict and regional stability. When the Solomon Islands asked Australia to send troops to help them secure law and order there, the civil unrest had much to do with criminal elements fighting over the nation’s precious forest resources. Conflict over timber also contributed to Fiji’s coup five years ago.
More generally, much of the violence in Mindanao, Myanmar and elsewhere is due to poor forest governance The Australian aid program’s focus on capacity building - to prevent conflict, and instill good governance and sustainable resource management - speaks directly to many of these issues.
Forest management in this region could benefit enormously from Australia’s experience. The Regional Forest Agreement and the way the federal and state governments work together are just two examples. Australian universities have a wealth of tropical forest knowledge they can continue to share with future leaders in this region. And Australia’s expertise fighting money laundering could be a powerful tool in combating illegal logging.
Australia is highly regarded for its work on poverty, governance, environmentally sustainable development, and regional stability. If it wishes to enhance this reputation and continue to advance Australia’s national interests, then forest management must take a bigger part in its aid program.
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