Malaysian timber conference kicks off without Bruno Manser Funds
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Malaysian timber conference kicks off without Bruno Manser Funds

THE 51st session of the International Tropical Timber Council, which runs from Nov 16-20, opened in Kuala Lumpur to provide a forum on a wide-ranging agenda aimed at promoting sustainable tropical forest management and the trade of sustainably produced tropical timber.

Participants representing governments, NGOs, businesses, and other partners are attending to address issues with this year’s theme: “Raising the profile of tropical timber in the market place”.  The council will also elect a new executive director.

Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, opened the council session. He noted his country was a founding member of ITTO and expressed appreciation for ITTO’s role in enhancing expertise in tropical forestry through its programmes and projects. Datuk Embas pointed out some of the challenges faced by member countries in implementing sustainable forest management and said that overcoming these will require further work by ITTO.

Among the distinguished guests include Ngole Philip Ngwese, Cameroon’s Minister of Forests and Wildlife, Barbara Serwah Asamoah, Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, and Dr Manoel Sobral Filho, Director of the UN Forum on Forests, and many others.

Dr Sobral said that ITTO could play a leading role in the post-2015 International Arrangement on Forests and the new Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network. He recently addressed world leaders in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals with the aim to end poverty while protecting the environment.

The council is expected to receive progress reports on the implementation of the Biennial Work Programme for 2015–2016 and the ITTO Thematic Programmes, and it will review the status of cooperation between ITTO and CITES and the Joint ITTO–Convention on Biological Diversity Collaborative Initiative for Tropical Forest Biodiversity.

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Meanwhile, as the council’s annual conference reels off, a  conservation group has not been allowed to participate.

The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Funds (BMF) which has been attending the ITTO conference for the last 20 years has been warned to stay away from the forum – like what happened in Yokohama last year. BMF delegate Johanna Michel, who represents the Swiss organisation has been asked by the ITTO secretariat to leave the conference premises. The decision to ban BMF from the conference was taken by the Malaysian chair, Freezailah Che Yeom, on request of the Malaysian delegation.

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Bruno Manser Funds Executive Director Lukas Straumann. (Photo: Supplied)

BMF said the Malaysian delegation is blocking the organization to be admitted to the conference due to lack of respect and cooperation “to achieve the objectives of the International Tropical Timber Agreement 2006.”  The Malaysian delegation did not elaborate its stand, but BMF said the Malaysian government does not want to include in the forum any discussion on corruption in the tropical timber sector.

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BMF delegate Johanna Michel (Photo: Supplied)

The BMF wants to question ITTO over the loss of US$18 million in speculative investments. None of the questions raised by BMF with the ITTO secretariat have been answered. The BMF said an ITTO working group had to admit that US$6 million were lost in LM Managed Performance Fund, an Australian real estate fund by bankrupt investor Peter Drake. Another US$12 million invested in Ardent 365, a Cayman Island trust fund, are also believed to be lost. The BMF called for ITTO to appoint an independent special investigator.

The Swiss group is protesting against its arbitrary exclusion from the conference and calls on donor countries to stop funding ITTO due to the organization’s serious governance flaws. “There is no sustainability without transparency,” BMF Executive Director Lukas Straumann said. “We are particularly disappointed that Malaysia, as the host country of the conference, has abused the ITTO’s procedures to ban civil society from voicing its legitimate concerns.”

We are particularly disappointed that Malaysia, as the host country of the conference, has abused the ITTO’s procedures to ban civil society from voicing its legitimate concerns — Lukas Straumann.

Straumann’s book, Money Logging: On the Trail of Asian Timber Mafia, exposes the destruction of Sarawak rainforests along with the involvement of Sarawak Governor Taib Mahmud and Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman for grandscale corruption and money laundering with profits distributed among family members. Taib Mahmud’s lawyers reacted with legal threats against the publisher, Bergli Books, but failed in its attempt to stop Amazon from distributing the book.

The BMF has been planning to launch another book, Rainforest Hero – The Life of Death of Bruno Manser, wriiten by Ruedi Suter. It is another controversial book that investigates Malaysia’s role in the international timber business. Rainforest Hero unveils the story of Swiss rainforest advocate Bruno Manser who championed the cause of Sarawak’s indigenous rainforest communities until his mysterious disappearance in 2000. The book is scheduled to be launched Tuesday night in Petaling Jaya, hosted by Malaysian publisher Gerak Budaya.

The BMF  said the Malaysian government is trying to stifle dissenting voices who raise legitimate concerns about corruption and the non-respect of indigenous rights in Malaysia.

“We expect the international community to make it clear to the Malaysian government that international conferences must be open to civil society without restrictions,” BMF executive director Straumann said. “Certainly, we cannot accept that a leading producer country is attempting to ban a discussion on the role of corruption in the tropical timber sector.”

ITTO is an intergovernmental organization based in Yokohama dedicated at “promoting the conservation and sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources”. It was established in 1986 under the auspices of the United Nations amidst worldwide concern for the tropical forests.

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