Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

What's illegal about rainforest wood in a Barbie box?

A few weeks back I reported on a Greenpeace dispute with Mattel. It wants the world's largest toy maker to verify that toy packaging doesn't contain illegally harvested rainforest. Mattel said it's looking into everything. Greenpeace says it's still waiting. Pacific Swell has looked at evidence about Indonesia rainforest implications for California.

The short answer is that it's hard to tell. The long answer says a lot about how international law works.

The US grants forestry concessions and we monitor other countries too. We do this for money - bad logging heats up competition when we bring good old US of A wood to market. One study found costs to domestic lumber interests "conservatively" estimated at a billion dollars (by the lumber industry, 7 years ago, so grain of salt).

Beyond that, though, our government cares about illegal logging because it "leads to environmental degradation, disrupted trade and market access, exacerbated rural poverty and unsustainable economic development." Not necessarily for the environment, exactly, rather, it's the destabilizing effect the environment can have on US geopolitical interests that makes our diplomats' jobs harder.

The United States has a law, the Lacey Act, that aims to prevent illegally-taken wood from getting into the US. We enforce that law on facts only - it's no airtight legal defense to say you've got papers. Catching fake papers takes time.

Over in Indonesia, the government doesn't possess the commitment to excellence needed to keep illegal logging in check. Earlier, I laid out Indonesian enforcement shortcomings described in a World Bank report. Both Indonesia and the US say they're working on the problem.

US AID has tried to work with exporters of wood in Indonesia, to help them fill out the paperwork to show that they're not chopping down old-growth forests. Indonesia has a law where they have to track wood produce till it leaves the country. But everyone -the US government, international authorities, and Indonesian officials themselves - acknowledges there's more to do.

Bottom line: the US enforces a law, with incomplete authority, to address the problem. The Indonesian government lacks the tools and the wherewithal to enforce the authority it has. Laws are the clearest proxy for the environmental values we express, a lot of the time. But they fail here: logging's governance is a patchwork, pure and simple.

More about activist strategies that target business directly next.