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Friend of the forest

WHEN we think about the logging industry, it’s not usually in a flattering light. Logging, especially in East Malaysia, has a reputation for being fraught with unethical practices: corruption, unsustainable destruction of ecosystems, and disregard for the land rights of indigenous peoples.

Last year, allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women and schoolgirls in Baram by timber workers prompted the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to dispatch a task force to investigate. To date, however, its findings have been kept under wraps.

In light of such issues, it is heartening to see that some in the logging industry are striving for better things. On 6 March 2009, The Nut Graph spoke to Joseph Wong, managing director of Silvania Plantation Products Ltd, on why he strives for transparency, sustainability, and indigenous participation in his logging and palm oil company in the Solomon Islands.

Joseph the logger (Log image by playingwithbrushes @ Flickr)

Pistols, rifle and shotgun

Wong says he was born to be a logger. “I come from Sibu, Sarawak. When I was growing up, the only industry there at the time was the timber industry.”

As he got older, he began to look for better opportunities abroad. In 1991, when he was 35, Wong shipped out to the Pacific, having found employment with a Malaysian logging company in Papua New Guinea.

Wong explains that Malaysian corporations control the market in natural forestry, owning large operations in Africa and Russia. They dominate the logging industry in the Pacific.

Not surprisingly, habits at home have been perpetuated elsewhere. Malaysian companies tend to be a powerful lobby behind many governments, functioning like an economic imperialist force. The revenue and produce they generate rarely gets channelled back to citizens.

“Only the companies get richer. The natives get poorer,” Wong, 53,  says. “The people get some royalty, but their land would already be destroyed.” And while logging companies may provide basic amenities to the people in the area, when they move on, they take everything with them.

Logging companies have also been the driving force behind political corruption in such nations. They often get their way by bribing government officials, and making bad deals with uneducated locals.

“I was operating manager for the logging company,” says Wong. It was his duty to convince landowners (in much of the Pacific, natives legally own their land due to customary rights) to sell timber rights to their government, which would pass this on to the timber company. “My job was to get timber concessions by whatever means possible.”

(Pic by neosiam /
If money didn’t work, there were other methods. “We did our job by hook or by crook. I owned three pistols, a rifle, and a pump shotgun,” Wong reveals. “When people see armed men, they will give up.”

Of course, force created bad blood between the companies and the local people. “There was tension between loggers and resource owners. I had to travel with bodyguards.”

Moral re-armament

Then Wong had a change of heart — due to, appropriately enough, Initiatives of Change (IofC), an international non-profit. Working by the principle of “moral re-armament”, IofC has been an active advocate of good governance, inter-religious relations, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

“In 1999, I met an IofC volunteer in Papua New Guinea. He waited for me for three days to invite me to a conference in Sydney,” Wong says.

The conference was an eye-opener. “People talked about transparency, anti-corruption. According to them, there was always a better way of solving problems.” Equally important was the welcoming atmosphere. “I felt a lot of forgiveness, and love. There were a lot of touching stories,” Wong remembers.

Aerial view of the Solomon Islands, where Wong’s company is now located
(Public domain; source: Wikimedia commons)

After the conference, the hardened logger decided that he could not continue what he had been doing. “To me, it was a matter of doing the right thing,” Wong says. “I surrendered my guns.”

It was important to Wong that locals got a say in what happened to the resources that rightly belonged to them. “The people should decide what to do. They cannot depend on government, or foreign donors.”

One of his aims was education: “They need to know that there is an alternative answer to traditional logging. They need to know that logging and agriculture can be sustainable, and they don’t have to give their forest away.”

According to Wong, such conscientiousness is costly. “We are not really profitable,” he says. “But we can sustain it. It benefits the people, and income returns to the community.” More importantly, local communities become supportive. “Some of them receive us quite well.”

Locked up

Of course, such a break from the past was not popular among the logging companies. “The industry is fully aware that if the people know that alternatives exist, their money is less [influential],” Wong explains. “They definitely don’t like to see that happen.”

Wong started facing obstacles. His work permit in Papua New Guinea was not renewed, and he had to leave the country for the Solomons. In early 2007, he spent two weeks in prison, due to spurious allegations of corruption. Ongoing legal disputes with bigger logging companies placed him under effective house arrest for eight months. These hindrances hurt his company. “Whatever we were doing started deteriorating, but we are recovering, slowly.”

“The logging industry is very controversial,” Wong acknowledges. “It has never been transparent, and there’s a lot of hanky-panky. Improving things will take a long time. It’s difficult, because shareholders are only looking at profits.”

Logging in Danum Valley, Sabah (Pic by Rob and Stephanie Levy @ Flickr)

Wong plans to continue fighting the fight. A return to Malaysia, however, is iffy. “Change in Malaysia is more difficult. The logging companies are too strong,” he says.

The way land rights work here means that Malaysians, specifically the indigenous peoples, are worse off than Pacific Islanders, Wong opines. The Orang Asal rarely own the territory they live in; much of this land belongs to the government.

“At least [in the Pacific], the people have the last say,” Wong says. “In Malaysia, it is the politicians that make the decisions.”

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4 Responses to “Friend of the forest”

  1. Karcy says:

    Thank you. There is so much bad news going on, hearing good news gives us the strength to fight on.

  2. Anon says:

    This is a pretty extraordinary article. In Solomon Islands, Silvania is notorious for its operation on Vangunu island where it claimed it was going to establish a palm oil plantation. Many years later, there has been plenty of logging but very little palm oil production (i.e, none). Of course, it has made a pretense, by spreading around seeds for oil palms. But it has shown no interest in planting or harvesting a proper plantation (unlike the very successful plantations on New Britain and Guadalcanal). Is this transparent, ethical activity or just another clever device to con local landowners?

  3. kamal says:

    Let’s hope people who continue to argue for and support the legality of Malaysian timber practices read this article. It is to say at the very least, illuminating. Particularly his comments on Malaysian Orang Asal. Without recognising Indigenous Peoples as landowners and with such rights ignored, addressing legality simply brushes this problem under the carpet.

    The implications of which are borned by an already marginalised Orang Asal population. Responsibility lies not only with local government but countries that buy our timber. Particularly developed countries that are our customers should also feel that it is within their responsibility to pressure local governments to respect Indigenous Peoples rights.

  4. Fikri Roslan says:

    Well, the timber issue is coming back again. I thought the legacy of Malaysian timber companies ended with the introduction of timber certification. To my knowledge, Malaysian companies operating in other countries have improved their operation. Yes, they were involved in a lot of bad things such as corruption. My experiences in these issues however reveal that the host countries also [play] a bigger part. Many of these companies were also forced to “contribute” to many funds demanded by many powerful personalities and organisations in the host [country]. Many of these companies made honest investments and intended to stay longer. However, changes in policies and personalities made a good invesment turn bad.

    Samling lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Cambodia and elsewhere. Same thing with other companies. So, I am very open about this and will not comdemn only our Malaysian companies operating overseas.

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