This Week in Asia

How the Tokyo 2020 Games are killing rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia

The Japanese have a word to convey a sense of regret concerning waste: mottainai. It can be used as an exclamation - as in "What a waste of food!" - or a slogan for local environmentalists to encourage environmental sustainability.

So it came as no surprise that Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games organisers and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike made a commitment to making sustainability an integral part of the Games.

But as construction begins on facilities to support the mammoth undertaking that comes with hosting the Olympics, environmental groups are already up in arms about its effect on mother nature, specifically rainforests in the region.

Last week, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a US-based NGO, delivered a petition with more than 110,000 signatures to Olympic authorities, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), calling for "zero rainforest destruction" in the building of Tokyo 2020 facilities.

The petition came after officials confirmed in February that at least 87 per cent of the plywood panels used to construct the New National Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, were derived from timber in Malaysia and Indonesia, home to 10 per cent of the world's remaining rainforests.

They also said other facilities, such as the Olympic Aquatics Centre, Ariake Arena and the Sea Forest Waterway, were similarly using wood from these rainforests.

US-based RAN was one of more than 40 NGOs that called on the IOC in 2016 to ensure Tokyo would not source wood from endangered tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"We asked how they did their due diligence on timber for its venues, specifically concrete formwork plywood because the overwhelming majority used in Japan is tropical wood either from Indonesia or Malaysia," said Hana Heineken, senior campaigner of RAN. "The logging practices in both countries have been unsustainable for decades."

Japan continues to be the largest global consumer of tropical plywood, importing nearly 2 million cubic metres of plywood from Indonesia and Malaysia in 2016 alone, according to RAN.

Meanwhile, Malaysia had the world's highest deforestation rate between 2000 and 2012, according to a study by the University of Maryland that used Google-satellite images.

The petition calls for ending the use of wood harvested from rainforests, respecting the rights of indigenous and local communities, and adopting requirements for sourcing products that have a high risk of contributing to deforestation and human rights violations.

Tokyo officials made environmentally friendly promises in their sustainability plan, titled the Sustainability Plan and Sourcing Code, pledging to create "a legacy for a sustainable environment" and calling the Games "the ideal opportunity to share with the world Japanese values that lead to sustainability".

However, the plan was mocked by local environmentalists for providing little more than lip service to the issue.

"The Tokyo 2020 Sustainable Sourcing Code for timber is 'sustainable' in name, but not in its sourcing practices," Junichi Mishiba, of Friends of Earth Japan, said. "Tokyo 2020 will lack credibility until it improves its transparency and accountability, establishes robust due diligence systems, and proactively uses sustainable Japanese wood."

To be fair, officials are making some green choices. The Inner Garden of Meiji Jingu Shrine, a public garden, has been preserved despite its proximity to the New National Stadium. The stadium's roof and eaves use domestic timber, and Tokyo used sustainably sourced timber to construct the Games' Village Plaza.

Tokyo 2020 officials defended their actions to This Week in Asia, saying the were following guidelines for sourcing sustainable timber.

Heineken and other environmentalists recently met the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers to "strongly recommended" they revised their policies to put a greater emphasis on the use of domestic wood.

"The IOC listened genuinely and we had a constructive conversation," she said. "They asked why Tokyo 2020 can't use more domestic or non-tropical wood."

And while the IOC said city officials and the Japan Sport Council - an extra-government organisation operating and managing the construction of the New National Stadium - are taking the issue "very seriously" and are "committed to increased transparency in the future", there are valid reasons for using foreign wood. It boils down to three things: cost, aesthetics and earthquakes.

"Their response was that it would raise the cost; that has been the excuse they've given us since the beginning," Heineken said, adding that the low cost of foreign wood was because it was being "ripped away" from indigenous communities.

"The obsession with tropical plywood is that its smooth, so when they mould the concrete, they get a smooth surface. They also have strict earthquake standards that can use the wood without putting additional layers on it. But, frankly, it doesn't justify it," she said. "Our view is that Japan has a huge impact on Southeast Asian rainforests - they need to recognise that and change the way they do business."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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