Killing Kwila trade down under


The Jakarta Post – 12 August 2008 - Duncan Graham

Conservationists are claiming an early victory in the preservation of Indonesian native forests, not by taking action in the lush forests of Papua and Kalimantan, but by protesting on the streets of Western cities.

Kwila, also known as merbau and ipil, is an Indonesian hardwood much loved in Australia and New Zealand for its durability, color and price.

It's particularly popular in outdoor furniture, a much sought after consumer item in these two countries that love open-air recreation and barbecues.

While winter winds cut across Australasia, entertainment is around log fires in well-sealed houses, leaving rain-lashed backyards empty.

Once the sun reappears, come Spring, the buyers will be back, though many will not be able to buy their favorite kwila furniture, once present stocks are cleared.

"We've been trying to persuade New Zealanders not to buy furniture made from Indonesian timbers that have been illegally harvested," said Dr. Russel Norman, co-leader of the NZ Green Party and a member of Parliament.

"We've been lobbying the shops not to buy kwila furniture for next season. Of course some don't care, but we are on the point of getting there in terms of making people aware of the issues.

"The illegal destruction of forests in Indonesia is a major concern because it's contributing to global warming. The timber is being cut in Indonesia, then exported to Vietnam and China, where it's made into furniture for export."

Kwila grows to 50 meters and was once common in Southeast Asia. Traditionally its bark was used for medicine.

According to the Greens about 80 percent of illegally sourced wood sold in NZ is kwila. The NZ government reckons this trade is costing the NZ forestry industry $NZ 266 million (US$188 million) per year in lost revenue because buyers are not selecting goods made using local timbers.

The trade to Australia is even bigger. Kwila resists termites, a huge problem in that country, making the timber even more desirable.

Although Indonesia bans the export of kwila that hasn't been verified as sustainable and legally obtained, conservationists allege the timber is being sent to China using forged documents. Some is made into furniture and sold to Australia and NZ -- a lot has reportedly been used in Beijing Olympic Games venues.

Norman was an invited speaker at an event organized by the Indonesian Embassy in the NZ capital Wellington to promote TV programs on preserving orang-utans in Kalimantan where illegal felling is contributing to destruction of the animals' habitat.

The films, made by Natural History NZ, are being shown internationally on the Discovery channel. Norman urged Indonesia to pay farmers in Kalimantan and Papua not to fell native timbers.

"Indonesians want to develop economically," he told the audience. "We've chopped down our native forests and it's not fair to ask Indonesians to do the same without compensation." NZ banned the felling of native timbers in 2000.

Kwila exports aren't the only concern of NZ conservationists. In 1999 NZ imported about 400 tons of palm kernels for cattle feed; that figure has now jumped to more than 400,000 tons as rising milk prices have created a huge demand for dairy products leading to rapid growth in dairy farms.

Large areas of land in Indonesia are being clear felled and turned into palm plantations, mainly for the oil that is now being used to make bio-diesel fuel. The kernels are a by-product.

The campaign to stop Kiwis buying furniture made from Indonesian hardwoods, spearheaded by the Indonesian Human Rights Committee in NZ, seems to having an impact.

Harvey Norman stores, a major retail outlet in Australia and NZ and the target of protests in Auckland, has written to the campaigners saying it has stopped buying kwila products and will stop selling goods it has in stock by 31 March next year.

Committee spokesperson Maire Leadbeater said the campaign was starting to change the public perception of kwila.

"I do believe that collectively we have made a difference," she said. "The NZ government's recent statements on this issue confirm the close link between illegally logged wood and kwila but unfortunately they are not willing to regulate to stop the imports... yet.

"However retailers are quite sensitive to consumer reaction and many have said they won't stock kwila next summer."