Monday, March 02, 2009

Malcolm Turnbull linked to mass logging operation in Solomon Islands

By Linda Silmalis

February 28, 2009 10:00pm




JUST as Malcolm Turnbull tries to outsmart Labor on environmental issues, a file of documents has emerged linking the Leader of the Opposition to a mass logging operation in the Solomon Islands.

The tiny island of Vangunu is a speck on the world map; a dot in the Pacific and home to just over 2000 people. It forms part of the collection of thousands of land masses that make up the Solomon Islands.

Once covered in pristine rainforest, the island and the surrounding Marovo Lagoon were the subject of lobbying by the New Zealand government and environmentalists to have it World Heritage-listed in the late 1980s.

Almost two decades later, the island is again being talked about - only this time for different reasons.

The emergence of a carefully-documented file detailing mass logging operations and the ongoing impacts in the region has Vangunu back in the spotlight.

More specifically, the file - obtained by The Sunday Telegraph - records the involvement of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull over that time.

Mr Turnbull was the chairman of a company called Axiom Holdings after he and fellow investors purchased a 16.21 per cent stake in the company in 1991.

The company was one of several companies with logging activities in the Solomons.

It was also one of the largest.

According to the documents, it was under Mr Turnbull's time as chair that the company boosted its activities and profits, with devastating consequences on the environment.

It is not the first time that the former environment minister has been scrutinised over the issue.

His critics began digging around his past business interests during the battle for the seat of Wentworth in 2004.

With environmental issues a key issue at the time, his opponents were keen to challenge Mr Turnbull's green credentials.

It emerged that he had been chairman of Axiom Forest Resources from late 1991 to to July 1992 -- a company that had earlier been the subject of a series of damning AusAID reports.

Published in the early 1990s, the reports likened Axion and its operations on Vangunu to "a clear-felling operation" that made little attempt to be sustainable.

Responding to the issue at the time, Mr Turnbull told ABC radio that he had had no hands-on role in the logging operations on the Islands.

Describing himself as a "corporate doctor", Mr Turnbull said that after he saw the consequences of poor forestry he had tried to encourage local owners to change their ways. Mr Turnbull said he was unaware the companies had been described as having some of the worst logging practices in the world.

He said he was aware of some companies having "difficulties" and that Axiom had acquired them to clean up the mess.

"The vision of the founders of Axiom, of which I was not one, was to acquire these logging companies and then restructure them and sort of reposition them so that they became sustainable operations," Mr Turnbull said. "My only involvement with the company was as a corporate doctor."

Three years later, when John Howard announced plans to help fight deforestation in South-East Asia and the South Pacific, the issue again arose as Labor circulated press clippings in Parliament House, again detailing the AusAID reports.

The clippings were an embarrassment for Mr Turnbull who had just described forests as "lungs of the world".

When questioned at the time, Mr Turnbull said he had visited the Solomons but never been to the site of the logging operations. The issue again disappeared.

However, just as Mr Turnbull struggles against internal critics and tries to shift the focus onto his policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, documents about his Solomon Islands dealings have surfaced.

So just what do they contain?

Plenty. Enough, to suggest Mr Turnbull may have been driven more by profits than saving forests.

Mr Turnbull was chairman of Axiom for almost seven months.

In July 1992, the South China Morning Post published an article that states Mr Turnbull sold out of Axiom for HK25c per share, or a representing a sale return of over $A4.3 million.

While it has never been confirmed just how much Mr Turnbull pocketed from the venture, it is speculated that the profits from the exercise may have been as high as $25 million.

Three months after the sale, the Australian-government funded AusAID study was released which catalogued the logging activity of Axiom and its subsidiaries: Integrated Forest Industries, Rural Industries, Silvania Products and Isabel Timber Co. The report found that the companies had massively increased logging activities in the region while Mr Turnbull was chairman.

Specifically, Axiom increased its production from 25,500cum to 40,900cum between 1991 and 92.

Production was able to be increased because of a new Silvania operation that had begun on the island of Vangunu, it said. The operation had contributed an additional 70,000cum to its quota.

"The degree of canopy removal and soil disturbance was the most extensive seen by the authors in any logging operation in tropical rainforest in any country," the report said.

Asked about the details of the report, Mr Turnbull's office referred The Sunday Telegraph to an e-mailed transcript of his earlier interview with the ABC.

Labor has long believed Mr Turnbull has failed to explain his role as a corporate doctor and, specifically, what he did to improve logging practices given production effectively doubled under his watch.

As a Labor source said: "Malcolm's biggest problem is everyone's let him off the hook because it has been written about before." However, he has never confessed that things actually worsened under his watch.

As the file states: "Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly said that he's an environmentalist, particularly during his hard fought election win in 2007 in his leafy and well-educated seat of Wentworth.

"He's also sought in recent days to position himself as an active campaigner against climate change. But Malcolm Turnbull's past as a logger in the Solomon Islands calls into question how strongly he really holds these views."

More embarrassingly for Mr Turnbull, the file also contains scientific articles published in international journals detailing the impact logging has had on the local Solomon Islands community.

A 2002 report by marine biologists published in The Status of Solomon Islands Coral Reefs said the unique reef and Marovo lagoon system was still suffering from the effects of logging.

"Villagers report huge sediment plumes following heavy rain," it said. "Once the rain has stopped, the water may clear within 24 hours to a week. In the rainy season that means the plumes are a semi-permanent feature."

A 2005 Melanesian Geo article by local resident Douglas Pikacha said the lagoon may never recover from the damage.

A further paper published last year said large algal blooms from sediments in the catchments were wreaking havoc on the delicate reef system.

Mr Turnbull may believe he has already dealt with the issue in the past but, so long as the devastating impacts of the logging activities on the islands keep emerging, Labor will be ensuring it won't go away.

At the very least, the file is an embarrassment for a leader trying desperately to out-green Kevin Rudd on environmental policy. Coming smack bang in the middle of the debate over an emissions trading scheme, it is an unwanted distraction.

At worst, it suggests profit has been placed over the environment and with devastating consequences.

In the same way Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil frontman wishes he had probably never penned US Forces, Mr Turnbull might well be wishing he had stuck to banking.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:14 AM

    It is best for us to know the background of our elected leaders.We should know where they are coming from and the values that are tevealed through their past activities