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More illegal logging within VATTHE Conservation

In our September 27 blog piece, we highlighted that it would appear that commercial trade in rosewood timber, in particular export of rosewood slaps were continuing unabated particularly within VATTHE Conservation Area in Santo – all of these happening under a ban on rosewood trade imposed by Forestry Minister earlier this year.

In that piece, Campaign for Justice 2018 posited that this was in total breach of the Forestry Act, particularly Sections 61 and 62, notwithstanding effectiveness of the April 2018 ban of rosewood trade.

We made it clear that Section 61 prohibits export of logs and flitches, and that the same Section of the law allows for the export of logs and flitches only if the requirements under subsections (2) and (3) are satisfied.

The above Sections of the Forestry Act were highlighted because our investigations up until then showed that those same provisions were not followed, and the purported ban, the way it stood seemed to have been used as a smokescreen for something else or a cover-up at worst.

As of late October 2018 (see below photos), further C4J surveillance show that such illegal logging activities have resumed not only without an end in sight, but brazenly. And it is not just rosewood but other hardwood timber being milled on commercial scale.

These images were obtained in 2018


The rape of these lucrative timber resources are taking place right now within VATTHE Conservation Area in Big Bay, Santo, most probably right before the eyes of Forestry officers and Environmental Protection authorities. It the raises the most serious question yet: what will happen to all of the rest of the conservation areas? If law enforcement agencies and regulators are not prepared to stand up and take punitive action against the law breakers, then it is our respected view that no conservation area stands a chance of being secured and protected.

Last September, on the 5th C4J completed and handed over on a silver platter to the Director of Department of Environmental Protection Ridley Tari, an investigative report outlining substantial breaches of the laws following close surveillance of illegal logging operations happening at Big Bay. C4J acted following a request from the Department of Environment to conduct the investigation using its own resources because it believes that something must be done to protect local environment and resources for our future generations. But since then, nothing has yet to come out of the report and raises serious questions about the ability of the director and responsible authorities to actually enforce the laws.

Some 10 suspects were named and listed. The suspects comprised both public servants, so-called landowners and private interests.

One would have thought that the easiest thing to do would have been for the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation to pick up the report and head straight to the courts with help from the prosecutors. They obviously have not done so. The official line now seems to be: “We need further advice from State Law Office and its stamp of approval before proceeding any further”. That is quite understandable given the legal implications but how long should we wait?

In the meantime, illegal operations, which started barely two weeks ago since the C4J report was handed over, have been witnessed yet again in the same area of concern. Logging and milling full scale is continuing there without due regard for the fact that VATTHE is a conservation area protected by an Act of Parliament and listed tentatively by UNESCO as a heritage Site.

The argument from the perpetrators seems to be that as “custom owners”, we can do as we please irrespective of the provisions of the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act.

If anyone is to tow this line of argument then we might as well kiss farewell to the conservation initiatives declared by the communities and registered by the Government.

Such conservation areas include: Kauri Reserve in Erromango, Lorum Conservation in Hog Harbour, Crab Bay Conservation in Malekula and Nguna-Pele Conservation initiatives in North Efate, just to list a few; because the Government is only paying lip-service to its own regulations and has no interest in protecting the environment, or to preserve national heritage sites such as VATTHE.


BACKGROUND WORTH CONSIDERING

VATTHE (which literally means ‘eye of the sea’) conservation area was registered in 2004 under the Environmental Management and Conservation Act No.12 of 2002 and listed under the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan Conservation Area Database. It is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is interesting to note that VATTHE’s application to UNESCO was deposited by the Vanuatu National Museum and the then Vanuatu Environment Unit, which is now a full fledge department of government.

It has, (or supposed to have) a management plan and a management committee. It is located in Big Bay, on the northern coast of Santo and covers an area of 2,726 hectares. VATTHE is hailed by UNESCO as protected area that possess 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’.

Both the Forestry Act and the Environmental Protection and Conservation Acts are unambiguous. The law makes specific provisions for quite sensible processes for acquiring timber rights and then establishes the Forest Board of Vanuatu – responsible for supervising the negotiations for Timber Rights Agreements (TRA). (The maximum period for a TRA is ten years, although these are renewable). The Act also establishes the process for obtaining a TRA, which involves obtaining approval from the Forest Board, the appointment of a Forest Investigation Officer to consult with the custom owners, and the appointment by landowners of a Management Committee to monitor the logging agreement and subsequent payments.

Also under the Forestry Act, for cases where the value of timber is not sufficient to justify the expenses associated with granting a timber rights agreement, a Timber Permit can be granted for up to one year. Both Acts are administered by two distinct government departments – Forestry and Environmental Protection and Conservation.

C4J pointed to these specific requirements in its last post to make the case that stringent conditions are there for the protection, development and sustainable management of forestry resources in Vanuatu.

We put to both the Department of Forestry, and the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation that the above requirements are now been trodden underfoot for selfish gains.


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