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Forestry Calls on Stakeholders to Help Stop Illegal Logging

The recent series of natural disasters have had a cumulative and ongoing effect on the country that has resulted in an increased demand for timber to rebuild or repair homes that were damaged by the cyclones. And while every effort is being made by various agencies to assist the affected communities with housing rehabilitation, the Ministry of Forestry is noting an increase in illegal logging. So much so that the Ministry is renewing its call to various stakeholders to help put an end to all forms of illegal logging.   

Specifically, the Ministry noted that the illegal operations are not just limited to the actual harvesting of trees unbeknown to the resource owners, and their illegal transportation and sale to sawmills. It turns out that some cases also involve certain resource owners entering into arrangements with the harvesting contractors – arrangements that are lopsided and highly disadvantageous to the larger proportion of resource owners, to Government, and even more devastating to the environment.

Permanent Secretary for Forestry Pene Baleinabuli said some arrangements made by certain resource owners include not obtaining harvesting licenses from the Ministry, or even if they do, they ignore proper documentation like producing timber statements and they don’t stamp the logs. Selling undocumented and unstamped logs means that the contractors will not pay any royalty for the harvested trees, nor pay the appropriate fees and charges.

He said the landowners themselves lose big time because they will not receive the rightful amount of money they should receive from the trees. Also, if only a handful of resource owners are facilitating the deal, then obviously they will be the only ones receiving some money, and not the rest of the family members or clan.

The nation also loses out because the fees and charges, however minimal they are, are part of Government revenue which are then invested into building national infrastructure such as roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and so on. 

And one of the greatest impact of illegal logging is on the natural environment. Illegal harvesting always leads to little or no regard to the impact of logging on the environment. Whoever is harvesting illegally will hardly follow the harvesting standard. This will lead to damages to standing trees, soil erosion, damage to water sources, and the loss of biodiversity. Worldwide, illegal logging is also one of the main causes of deforestation which in turn reduces nature’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases or air pollution. And, as scientists around the world have proven, deforestation is a leading driver of infectious diseases.

So, the national and global efforts to find solutions for climate change and to address global pandemics such as COVID-19 are negatively impacted by deforestation largely through illegal and unsustainable logging.

Mr. Baleinabuli said the Ministry has reported a number of cases to the Police and the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC), and is working with these law enforcement agencies including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to curb illegal logging. 

He said that businesses that rely on Fiji’s natural resources such as forests also have a duty of care to the nation. They should refrain from engaging in any illegal operation including felling, transporting, or buying illegally sourced logs.

He said obtaining a harvesting license is not a complicated exercise. It requires the majority of the landowners agreeing to harvest a certain area of their forests, which is validated and endorsed by the iTaukei Lands Trust Board before the Ministry of Forestry conducts its due diligence and issues a license. 

The Ministry will shortly launch its online harvesting license to help facilitate the ease of doing business for companies involved in harvesting. He said the Ministry noted a significant increase in exports revenue when it launched the online permitting system in August 2020. 

“Over 80 percent (close to $70 million) of the total exports revenue for last year was generated when the Ministry went online,” he said. 

He said once the harvesting license is obtained, the contractors need to ensure they abide by the forestry harvesting code and the environmental standards.

Sawmillers are requested not to buy logs that are not stamped because that will mean that the logs have been obtained illegally.

Mr. Baleinabuli said unstamped logs and other forest resources that are sourced illegally will be confiscated by the Ministry and the people involved are liable for a fine of up to $10,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or to both fine and imprisonment.

“Government will not hesitate to impose fines and issue stop notices to logging operators or sawmillers who are found to be involved in any illegal activity.”

He said the Ministry is stepping up its operations on the ground with staff assisted by the Police checking log truck passes as well as doing snap checks and monitoring sawmill operations around the country. Improving its monitoring operations is an important part of the Ministry’s sustainable forest management vision to address economic growth while also addressing climate change-related issues.

The Ministry is appealing to the stakeholders to work together towards a triple win for the resource owners, the businesses that rely on forestry, and for the environment.

In the meantime, Mr. Baleinabuli said that the Ministry together with various stakeholders have prepared housing structures for more than 500 houses for villagers in the maritime islands that were affected by Tropical Cyclone Harold as well as for villagers in Bua and Macuata who were affected by Tropical Cyclones Yasa and Ana. 

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