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C4J urges Govt to go all the way with logging inquiry

Campaign for Justice (C4J) is delighted that finally – after almost three solid years of campaigning, something is finally being done about long standing reports of illegal logging trade, particularly of the lucrative Blu Wota, or Rosewood timber in Santo, Malekula and other islands.

These logs have been sawn to appear as if they were not 'round' logs. The law prohibits export of round logs

The Vanuatu Government through the Ministry of Justice has publicly announced the names of the members of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) made up of very prominent persons – some very well placed to do the job thoroughly.

C4J is honoured to have been recognised, not only with the appointment of its senior investigator as part of the team, but also for the authorities to take our report seriously. The C4J report was submitted to the Minister for Justice in May 2020.

The major downside though is that because of the slow response of the government to that report since our first reactions in 2018, it could mean that carrying out investigations into something that happened 3 to 4 years ago could be arduously difficult, not least because key evidences may have been seriously compromised.

Also, with the passage of time, activities that might have been unlawful previously, could well now be perfectly in harmony with the law because of legislative changes. Of more concern is the fact that people and companies involved may have also disappeared, which would make it difficult to trace them both locally and internationally. And in places like Asia, it could be very difficult to infiltrate their system to find the real culprits.

As such, while we welcome the news, we reiterate that responsible authorities should always try to take immediate steps to address complaints of unlawful activities within reasonable time. That way, we can have some assurance that the perpetrators would be apprehended and brought to justice. The old adage is always true: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’.

Rosewood and other hardwood logging trade were activities that were meant to have been prohibited by law. Those laws, including a ban that came into force in February 2018, have been designed to protect our environment from exploitation by unscrupulous individuals. Not only that, it came to our attention in 2018 that alleged illegal logging were taking place in a place that was supposed to be reserved as a conservation area.

Why are C4J so concerned about such activities? One may ask. Many do not realise that in Vanuatu, we have a piece of paradise that millions on the other side of the globe are graving to see and experience. Prior to COVID-19, people have paid large sums of money to visit and experience the beauty and the serenity of the place for themselves.

Culturally our pristine environment is meant to be where we all live, share and have our being as part of the same ecosystem. We humans were meant to be good stewards of what our creator God had planned ahead of time. Instead our reports (Of course most of these will have to be confirmed by the COI) have documented activities that are smacked of greed and selfishness.

Campaign for Justice fully supports the idea of conserving the environment for the benefit of everyone now and into the future. The UNESCO listed VATHE Conservation Area – an area of 2720 hectares and home to 265 plant species must be protected at all costs. The custodians of the land area need to be reminded of how important it is to conserve their forests. If need be authorities need to find avenues whereby landowners have some form of assistance in this noble endeavour.

According to a study conducted by New Zealand scientists back in 1993, that area has 48 different species of land and freshwater birds, out of a total of 78 species identified. VATTHE has been hailed by UNESCO as protected area that possesses a ‘unique ecological diversity’ which ‘allows for the presence of many faunal communities, including 6 endemic species of Vanuatu birds, 3 endemic freshwater species, 1 endemic flying fox, and 3 endemic species of reptiles’.

But more than that. VATHE is (was) also said to be home to bird species of vast richness and diversity unlikely to be exceeded anywhere else in Vanuatu. And yet because of the lure of money and selfishness, some unscrupulous people, colluding with landowners as it appeared, thought they could flout the laws governing such highly valuable conservation areas.

If logging, especially of the highly lucrative Rosewood timber trees were to be permitted at protected areas then C4J believes there is really no point establishing such conservation sites. VATHE was not the only conservation area under threat. A whole lot of other conservation sites are also at risk of being exploited for personal gain if nothing is done and those responsible are not brought to account.

C4J eagerly awaits the outcome of this enquiry. Whatever that outcome might be, we believe the findings should be made public.

We know the Minister for Justice has indicated that the reports would be tabled in parliament. C4J urges the Government to go a step further. Make those responsible pay. Our little piece of paradise is too nice a place to be allowing illegal logging. The one thing that we have endeavoured to spotlight in our work thus far is the impunity with which reports of injustice and corruption often gets either shafted under the carpet, or worse, ignored.

We hope our contributions to the Commission will be helpful in some way of achieving the goal and purpose of the enquiry within the three months’ time allotted to them.

Chronology of events leading to the establishment of COI

· February 2018 – Former Minister of Agriculture Matai Seremiah instituted a ban prohibiting all trade in Rosewood slaps. (Note that reports of illegal logging of Rosewood timber first surfaced around 2017).

· September 2018 – On September 12, we wrote to the Director of the Department of Forestry pointing out to him that it would appear that the harvesting of Rosewood for commercial purposes were continuing despite the ban imposed by the then Minister for Agriculture. The Director did not respond to our letter so we wrote a blog piece raising questions as to the validity of the ban, and whether if it was in fact just a smokescreen for something else. In that report we were of the strong views that logging of Rosewood had continued unabated, in total breach of the Forestry Act, particularly Sections 61 and 62. Section 61 prohibited the export of logs and flitches. The same Section also allowed the export of logs and flitches only if the requirements under subsections (2) and (3) were satisfied. Our considered views then was that the requirements of the Act were not being followed. About the same time, at the request of the Department of Environment we completed and handed over a report after on our own investigations of the illegal activities that were taking place, right under the noses of those who were meant to be policing their laws. In our report, some 10 suspects were named. The list comprised of included public servants. The report was also handed over to the office of the public prosecutor for prosecution. Nothing has since come of that.

· October 2018 – We initiated more investigations and lo and behold, our worst fears were confirmed. Rosewood slaps were spotted being shipped illegally from Santo to Port Vila aboard MV Mahalia – a marine vessel owned by the very Minster, Matai Seremiah, who orchestrated the Rosewood trade ban in February 2018. And it was not just rosewood but other hardwood timber that were being milled on a commercial scale. We published the following piece to highlight the extent to which the ban was being brazenly ignored.

· October 2019- One year had lapsed, after submitting our investigation report of the illegal logging activities to the Department of Environment and Conservation and then to the office of the Public Prosecutor. On receiving no further feedback, we published this blog piece raising serious questions over the genuineness of the Department of Environment and Conservation in enforcing its own laws.

· May 2020 – With no further progress from our report, following more ground work with other key stakeholders, we managed to hand the report to the Minister for Justice Esmon Simon who promised to do something about it.

· January 2020 – The Minister of Justice delivers on his promise by appointing a Commission of Inquiry for the first time. Let’s hope something positive comes of it and logging, especially within conservation areas are halted for the betterment of all our livelihoods.

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Very nicely presented team, I’m glad you’re still on the task. Persistence, tenacity, and a firm belief in the truth, will create the end result that we are all looking for. The precious resources Vanuatu, To be valued more than money

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