Friday, February 3, 2023

The Long Shadow, Part One


The long ecological shadow, that is.

An “ecological shadow” of a corporation or of a country is when the corporation or country creates ecological damage but exports, or dumps, that damage someplace else. An example that immediately comes to mind is Love Canal, in which the Hooker Chemical Company dumped huge amounts of toxic wastes near Niagara Falls, New York, and simply buried it. The damage affected hundreds of residents of a housing tract that was, later, built over the dump. The company got all the profits, the people got all the damage. That is an ecological shadow.

Well, countries can do this, too. And, according to Peter Dauvergne in his book Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia, this is exactly what Japan has done to the countries of Southeast Asia. Japan has gotten a huge amount of profit from the destruction of tropical rainforests, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Most of the profits from tropical deforestation went to Japan; some of the profits went to corrupt leaders in southeast Asian countries; while all of the consequences of deforestation, such as floods and mudslides and loss of livelihood, were borne by the poor people of those countries. These people were in the ecological shadow of Japan. Dauvergne admits other countries have contributed to the problem, but Japan was the major player.


After American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854, Japan could in theory get all the wood it wanted by importing it from other countries. They did not do this very much, at first, because wood is heavy and bulky, not easily imported from China, Korea, or especially from Southeast Asia, even after Japan conquered many of those  countries immediately prior to World War Two. But once Japan surrendered, they were encouraged to build up their peacetime economy, which included vast shipping lanes. By the 1950s, Japan imported vast amounts of timber, first from the Philippines, then from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Because the Allies, particularly America, built up Japan (to insure that they would be an American, not Soviet, ally), and because the Japanese worked really, really hard, Japan became really rich, slowly at first then rapidly. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries were not rich. They had very little money, but they did have a lot of tropical rainforests. The obvious solution was that Japan would buy the wood. This would, in theory, build up the economies of the other Asian countries, which was actually a part of their war reparations.

The Japanese corporations that imported wood from southeast Asia were not wood products corporations. They were the sixteen big corporations (sogo shosha) of Japan, such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Itochu, and Sumitomo. They were just the ones that bought the wood and got it to Japan and sold it to wood products corporations.

This economic relationship was, however, unbalanced. Japan was just about the only wood-buyer with whom the Asian countries had contact. The Japanese corporations set the price, take it or leave it. If the Asian countries wanted to sell wood, they had to accept Japan’s terms. They had to sell cheap, whole logs. These countries could have earned more money if they had processed the logs into plywood, then sold this value-added product to Japan. But the Japanese refused to buy these value-added products.

Japan made full use of its economic power over the Southeast Asian countries. They loaned lots of money to the governments of those countries but made the loans repayable in yen after 25 years, during which time the value of the yen increased faster than the loan interest rate. Thus, even as these countries repaid their loans, their debts grew. The amount of money Japan lent was far less than the ecological costs of the damage. Sometimes Japanese corporations claimed that, “Look we are increasing our environmental investments,” but these were not real expenditures. They just kept the same investments but renamed them “environmental” so they could move them over to the altruistic side of the ledger.

So, it would seem, the people of those countries accepted these terms. Only it wasn’t the people. It was the corrupt government and corporate leaders of those countries. Perhaps the most notorious was Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, dictators of the Philippines. They got stinking rich from selling whole logs and leaving behind barren landscapes that allowed flooding and mudslides that affected millions of their people. The Japanese corporations, and the Marcos family and their network of political appointees, got the money. (Time Magazine reported that Imelda had 1,060 pairs of shoes.) On paper, it made the Philippines look rich, though the wealth was in few hands. Imelda’s “loans to the poor” to alleviate rural poverty were actually rewards to political allies. Logging restrictions were almost meaningless, because there was no one to enforce or even keep track of them. Since timber concessions could be canceled at any time for any reason, Marcos-affiliated corporations had no incentive to harvest timber carefully or to replant; they had no future. They cut trees as fast as they could. After the Marcos regime fell from power, subsequent leaders may have wanted to get rid of corruption, but they could not. The only thing that slowed Philippine deforestation was the fact that they ran out of easily accessible, high-quality trees. This was no problem for Japan; they just switched to Indonesia and Malaysia for trees.

The dictators in Asian countries were not satisfied with legal logging. Since they depended on foreign aid, and lenders such as America wanted to prevent tropical deforestation, the dictators wanted to look like they were conservation minded. One of their tactics was to allow illegal logging on their concession lands. Whoops, somebody cut our trees down. We didn’t do it. But soon thereafter they would buy the timber right back from the illegal loggers. Another tactic was that the dictatorial governments would use their troops to shield illegal loggers. There was also a lot of smuggling out of these countries, facilitated by forged documents, to which the dictators such as Marcos turned a blind eye.

For a while, Indonesia was Japan’s principal source of timber. But in the 1980s Indonesia banned the export of cheap whole logs. Japan had to buy plywood from them instead. This made the economics of rainforest destruction a little better for Indonesia, but the forests still got cut down at an undiminished rate.

The Philippines still suffers a half billion dollars’ worth of damage just from soil erosion. They, and the other Southeast Asian countries, are still suffering from deforestation. Tropical forests do not grow back very easily, so the barren landscapes have remained mostly barren. Japan gives a lot of money to these countries, but it is mostly urban aid (for example, sewage treatment) rather than aid to rural people whose forests have been destroyed by Japan’s ecological shadow.

Dauvergne’s book has a lot of economic detail in it, and I found it to be heavy reading. I think you will benefit from my summary more than from the book itself, unless you are interested in Asian business.

Japan did not always have an insatiable appetite for imported wood. For a large part of its history, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world. The Japanese cut down their own forests, but they could neither conquer other forested countries nor import from them, because of their self-imposed isolation. They had to invent silviculture, in which they conserved and replanted their own forests up through the nineteenth century. How did they do this? That is the topic of the next essay.

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