As Tokyo struggles to cut Olympic costs, groups warn against illegal timber use
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As Tokyo struggles to cut Olympic costs, groups warn against illegal timber use

ALREADY facing backlash for proposing a US$20 billion budget to host the 2020 Olympics – more than four times the initial estimate, Tokyo organisers now have to address claims that their construction of several game sites will more than likely use timber illegally harvested from rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia.

A letter endorsed by 44 organisations and environmentalists around the world was on Tuesday hand-delivered to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland, citing concerns over the “high risk” that the illegal materials would be used to build facilities like Tokyo’s new Olympic National Stadium.

The groups warned that failure to employ proper safeguards and due diligence measures could have devastating consequences for biodiversity, climate change, and local communities who rely on forest resources for their livelihoods.

“There is a high risk that Tokyo’s new Olympic National Stadium and other projects planned for the Olympic Games will use illegal and unsustainable tropical timber from the endangered rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia,” the groups said in the letter to IOC president Thomas Bach.

“Efforts by the Japanese Government and the Tokyo Olympic organisers to mitigate these serious risks have been woefully inadequate.

“We urge the International IOC to take immediate action to ensure the sustainability aspirations of the Olympics are met and the timber used for Olympic construction does not leave a legacy of human rights violations and environmental devastation,” they wrote.


Much of Japan’s supply of timber comes from illegally logged forests in Sarawak, Malaysia. Source: Bruno Manser Fonds.

The letter jointly signed by groups and individuals in Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Germany, the U.S., Australia and Switzerland among several other countries, was made available to the media earlier Tuesday.

Among other measures, the groups said Tokyo organisers should be compelled to conduct a risk assessment study on the legality and sustainability of timber supply chains for all construction projects in the games. The results of the study, they added, should be made public.

Organisers should also be made to establish “full traceability” of timber back to the forest; obtain credible independent verification of the legality and sustainability of the timber used; and publicly report on measures taken to mitigate the risks, they said.

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Finally, they said, only timber derived from forestry operations that respect indigenous and local land rights should be used. This means “free, prior and informed” consent to logging operations from the indigenous communities should first be obtained before the materials are permitted for use.

The groups noted that Japan is the world’s biggest importer of plywood from tropical rainforests, nearly 90 percent of which are derived from Malaysia and Indonesia, where logging practices are often flagged for illegality, violation of indigenous rights, destruction of valuable forest ecosystems and corruption involving leaders.

They said the situation was particularly dire in Sarawak, a state in east Malaysia, which is said to supply nearly half of Japan’s imported plywood and is also a key supplier of the materials used for concrete formwork in Japanese construction projects.


Sarawak supplies nearly half of Japan’s imported plywood. Source: Bruno Manser Fonds.

Independent investigations have linked the plywood used by Taisei Corporation – the firm that will be building the new Olympic stadium – to a biodiversity hotspot in Sarawak said to be experiencing one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world due to unsustainable logging.

The groups noted that Tokyo organisers of the games recognise these risks and have taken some steps to address them, but said they were inadequate.

“The Tokyo Olympic organisers are not doing enough to avoid the use of timber linked to violations of indigenous rights, illegal logging, and rainforest destruction,” says Junichi Mishiba of Japan-based Friends of the Earth-Japan.

“Using illegal and unsustainable timber to build the Olympic buildings in Tokyo would go against the organisers’ commitment to sustainability and leave a terrible legacy.”


IOC vice president and Chairman of the Coordination Commission for the Tokyo 2020 Games John Coates adjusts his glasses at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, December 2, 2016. Pic: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Organisers of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 are currently deliberating cost-cutting measures for the games after the IOC rejected its proposed US$20 billion budget, a sum more than four times the initial estimate when Japan bid to be the next host.

Earlier this week, IOC vice president John Coates said the budget was unacceptable and would likely scare off cities considering bids for future Olympics.

Construction estimates for the Tokyo games have soared largely due to labour shortages and materials in Japan, which is still struggling to recover from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The final budget for the games is expected to be released by year-end.