Japan EXPO ignores forest catastrophe

Posted: 26 May 2005

Finding a balance between nature, technology and culture is the theme of the world exhibition, EXPO 2005, which opened in Japan earlier this year. In reality it is about technology and the economy, with little regard to Japan's huge appetite for tropical timber which is driving the illegal logging catastrophe in many third world countries.

Mammoth Building, Expo 2005, Tokyo, Japan: Photo: Andrew Skinner
Mammoth Building, Expo 2005, Tokyo, Japan: Photo: Andrew Skinner
Mammoth Building, Expo 2005, Tokyo, Japan© Andrew Skinner
Japan is a heavily forested country, half of it in the form of plantation trees, but it consumes 80 per cent of its wood needs from overseas sources for its huge housing, construction, paper and furniture industries.

Led by Britain, environment and development ministers from the developed countries met recently to come to an understanding that bringing down consumption of illegally imported hardwoods and improved forest management, are the only way to halt the illegal logging racket. They called for "strengthened agreements" with producer countries and better certification of wood imports. Japan, the largest user, is said to be "studying", timber certification schemes.

The reasons why Japan cuts down Canadian and Tasmanian old growth forests and consumes illegal timber are clear enough. Its economy is addicted to consumption. It is also cheaper to source timber products overseas and more convenient to maintain its own forests in order to satisfy Japan's Kyoto commitments on CO2 emissions, by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

Illegal logging

The colossal Japanese Global House at Expo has the largest seamless movie screen in the world. In another gargantuan building, we could have learned about the consequences of deforestation, instead we learn what would happen if the moon did not exist. If we cut down trees; no problem, we can build "tree buildings" or bio-lungs.

Recycling bins by paved river, Expo 2005, Toyko, Japan: Photo: Andrew Skinner
Recycling bins by paved river, Expo 2005, Toyko, Japan: Photo: Andrew Skinner
Recycling bins by paved river, Expo 2005, Toyko, Japan© Andrew Skinner
China is heavily involved in illegal overseas logging, having ended its own logging industry in 1998 to prevent flooding. And 90 per cent of Japan's chopsticks come from China. There are nine categories for garbage at Expo (the plastics will be used together as biomass to make energy for the Japanese pavilions), but bizarre that there is a rubbish bin for chopsticks. When asked, Public Relations says only that the emphasis is on reduce, reuse and recycle and not on the source of the resources.

The highlight of the show, the frozen mammoth display that purports to learn from the extinction of the woolly mammal, defies comprehension when one considers the current precarious condition of Indonesia's living elephants and rhino, on the verge of extinction.

Kohama Takahiro of the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network [JATAN] says, "most Japanese don't care". His organisation seems to be regarded, as little different than a cult. JATAN and Friends of the Earth Japan have 600 and 500 members respectively, whereas Friends of the Earth UK has 100,000.

Moreover, the Japanese branches of NGO's such as FOEJ and Greenpeace receive a lot of their funding from overseas because they can't raise the money in Japan. JATAN, The Nature Conservation Society of Japan, WWF Japan and the Wild Bird Society of Japan are not participating at Expo. They claim little co-operation and wanted to more fully review the environmental impact of the Expo in the middle of a bird sanctuary and at the removal of so many trees.

The International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), by contrast, is present at EXPO. This large UN sponsored organisation is over 70 per cent funded by Japanese government agencies and corporations. Their mandate, 'Objective 2000' was the creation of a balance between the producer who should be able to market their timber products and the consumer member countries that should apply some certification to ensure timber products are from legally sourced timber.

At a time when the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC] certification scheme supported by the Yokohama based ITTO has been a complete failure, the goal seems to be for greater market access, sighting the Japanese market as essential to the trade and appears to be delighted with the government's recent boost to the housing industry by tax breaks for loans as of 2003 and 2004.

Construction industry

The "full scheme" with "chain of custody", the second part of the certification whereby felled timber is tracked on its path from source to final user is very difficult to enforce. The ITTO notes that less than 7 per cent of the so-called legal tropical timber in Japan can really be considered sustainable. Simon Counsell of The Rainforest Foundation UK, says that either governments are unwilling and/or the ITTO is unable to do what it is supposed to, in which case, "....it might as well be shut down".

According to Global Witness, although Japan's wood imports are surpassed by China, it still consumes 25 per cent of the total of traded wood products in round-wood equivalents - with only 2 per cent of the world population. The ITTO does a lot of its work in Indonesia where most of the illegal timber comes from, laundered through Malaysia. Indonesia is also the largest recipient of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance.

The construction industry makes up 10 per cent of Japan's GDP. Buildings are not expected to last beyond 20 or 30 years, there is little renovation and restoration, hereditary taxes are high and height restrictions are changed, all to encourage and allow rebuilding, involving as many members of the cartel as possible. Few people want to live in a second-hand building. Value, is in the "new".

The medium is the message here at Expo, and the message it should be sending, is that less is more and there should be world-wide co-operation. Japan's consumption, affects the world. Considering that 80 per cent of all traded tropical timber ends up in North East Asia [plus Indonesia and Malaysia], it is urgent that this issue is addressed.

Andrew Skinner is a freelance journalist and cartoonist based in Tokyo.

EXPO 2005 Aichi Japan runs from March 25 to September 25.