The Multinational Monitor

November 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 11


Ravaging Resource

GATT and the World's Forests

by Emily Schwartz

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiators claim that their work does not affect the environment and that their efforts address trade matters only. The claim is false. Negotiators for major economic powers denounce environmental protection, conservation and economic development measures as "trade distortions," and want to use GATT to eliminate natural resource management programs.

Most notably, Japan has used GATT to attack national bans on the export of unprocessed timber. Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Thailand and the United States have enacted bans on the export of unprocessed timber from within their borders.

The Third World countries argue export bans will enable them to develop domestic log processing industries, fostering economic development and lessening their need to overexploit natural resources.

The United States prohibits the export of raw logs from most public land, though it does not restrict tree cutting for domestic use. While touted as an environmental measure, the export ban, initiated by Senator Robert Packwood, D-Oreg., also has the potential to create domestic lumber mill jobs. In signing Packwood's bill in August 1990, Bush probably hoped to quell unemployment fears within the log processing industry arising from his earlier designation of the spotted owl as an endangered species and the decision to prohibit logging in the bird's Oregon forest habitat.

The Bush administration, however, has little regard for the bans enacted by other countries. At hearings of the Oversight and Investigative Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills told Representative James Scheuer, D-NY, that she opposes bans on raw log exports enacted by developing countries in order to protect and nurture domestic logging industries because they would be "trade restricting." She added, "it's precisely the kind of thing that we have urged our trading partners to refrain from doing."

After Bush signed the Packwood bill, Japan introduced a proposal in the GATT working group on Rules and Discipline which called on GATT to declare impermissible export bans on raw logs which are not extended to processed forestry products. Japan's proposal accused "certain countries" of disguising protectionist measures as conservation initiatives.

Japan claims its objection stems from a commitment to free trade. GATT observers argue, however, that the Japanese are "not objecting in principle." Chee Yoke Ling, an attorney with the Malaysia-based Third World Network, says they only care "because this affects their market." Stewart Hudson, an international policy analyst with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., points out that while making these claims, Japan is seeking to maintain its import ban on rice. "Japan is crying out for free trade while trying to get an agreement running exactly counter to it--for food security." Japan's rice ban cannot be squared with efforts to prevent other countries from protecting their national interests.

Simple economic self-interest seems to be underlying the Japanese objection. Masayuki Yamashita, first secretary at the Japanese embassy in the United States, says "Japan is trying to protect Japanese economic interests" in the GATT negotiations. The diplomat says the U.S. export ban threatens Japan's 17,500 saw mills, which rely on imports for 70 percent of the raw logs they process. The United States was Japan's largest log supplier; in the first half of 1990; Japan imported more than $868 million worth of logs from the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Environmentalists concede that log export bans are an inadequate solution to the problem of deforestation, since they do not address the issue of domestic companies' responsibility for unrestrained tree cutting. Chee notes that overcutting has continued in Malaysia despite that country's ban. She emphasizes that only setting aside areas of national forest from logging will guarantee the forests' preservation.

But Richard Forrest, National Wildlife Federation Eastern Asian representative, who shares Chee's criticisms of raw log export bans, worries that the Japanese effort to curtail export restrictions "could undermine the few steps politicians have been willing to take to conserve old growth" woods.

While the GATT working group on Rules and Disciplines rejected the Japanese proposal to characterize log export bans as trade discriminatory, the Packwood ban could still be reversed. Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Don Phillips says Japan "is considering taking this issue to the GATT panel in Geneva to reverse the Packwood actions."

If Japan persuades a GATT panel to reverse the U.S. ban or if new GATT provisions are adopted which would eliminate raw log export restrictions, countries' ability to manage their natural resources to protect the environment and promote national interests would be seriously eroded.

Noting that GATT will strengthen the big countries' control of weaker countries' resources, critics call it the modern-day version of gunboat diplomacy. Focusing on Japan's initiative to overturn the U.S. log export ban, Hudson asserts that "Japan wants to dismantle any protective means that countries have to protect resources. In the late twentieth century, you don't fight wars to achieve this. You fight it on an economic front at GATT."

Emily Schwartz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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