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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March, 2005, 18:58 GMT
US blocks forest protection plan
By Roger Harrabin
BBC Newsnight correspondent

A secret US plan to wreck Tony Blair's G8 initiative combating illegal logging in the world's threatened rainforests has been revealed in a State Department memo leaked to the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Mr Blair wants G8 environment ministers meeting in Derby this week to make rules insisting that all timber bought by official bodies in rich nations comes from properly managed forests.

The world's rainforests are being destroyed by the "timber mafia" (Image: EIA)

The UK was prompted to start the initiative after Indonesian government ministers said corruption in their country was so rampant that they did not have the power to tackle the supply of timber from the criminal gangs pillaging the forests.

They urged rich nations to reduce the demand for cheap illegal wood.

But powerful industry lobbyists in the US have resisted moves to certify that timber is legitimately produced. And the leaked State Department memo shows that the US government will refuse to sign up to the Blair initiative.

Anglo-US relations

This will be a major disappointment to the UK Government.

And even more damaging for the transatlantic alliance is the revelation in the memo that the head of forest policy in the State Department, Stephanie Caswell, drafted a strategy in January to work with Canada to stop imposing restrictions on timber purchasing and to lobby Russia and Canada to vote against the scheme.

This man claims to have been attacked after reporting illegal logging
This Indonesian man says an illegal logging gang attacked him after he reported them to the authorities
The memo suggested that any measures by Mr Blair to issue a G8 communiqué committing to timber procurement rules was "unacceptable" and should be resisted.

A State Department spokesman confirmed that the paper was genuine but insisted that it was never formally accepted as US policy. He said the US had reservations about proposals for new rules on timber procurement in America but insisted in this week's negotiations the US would allow other G8 partners to decide whether to support Mr Blair's scheme.

The spokesman also said the US "might have had some discussions with Japan on the fringes of meetings about the issue" in previous G8 preparatory meetings, but said the Japanese would make up their own minds whether to support the UK.

European backing

Europe is strongly backing Mr Blair's initiative and the US tactics drew a furious response from rainforest campaigners.

Roger Harrabin with illegally traded timber
Roger Harrabin with illegally traded timber in Indonesia
Faith Doherty, from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in the UK, said: "I think it's completely outrageous. What we have is a country that does consume tropical timber, that does acknowledge that there is forest crime, environmental crime in Indonesia and other tropical countries; and to try to undermine what people have worked so hard for the last five years on this issue is just unacceptable."

She said the Japanese had recently introduced much tougher timber rules than the US.

Ms Doherty, a veteran campaigner, admitted the US was not a major primary consumer of tropical timber but insisted that manufactured illegal timber products were still flooding into America having been laundered elsewhere.

Other observers feel the State Department position is driven more by free-market ideology.

But RJ Smith, of the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, said: "I think the US views this as a way of moving away from free trade and moving into association with lots of the international NGOs that are trying to have a sort of green trade.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair speaking at an environment conference in London last week
"We don't necessarily believe that this is a step in the right direction. We think that trade should be as free as possible and these other issues as to involving environment and so on should be secondary to free trade, secondary to the major considerations of the WTO.

"The US, in the past, has not been particularly receptive to issues to bring management or use of the world's force in the control of international bodies or the United Nations.

"The last time I know there was a concerted effort to do this was at the World Environment Conference in Rio in 1992 and the US did not go along with the World Forestry Treaty that came out of that. So I would be surprised if the US went in that direction."

In an echo of the debate over climate change the US is sceptical about the effect of G8 timber policies because China is a huge importer of stolen timber. Campaigners say China is unlikely to change unless rich nations have put their house in order.

Roger Harrabin's film was broadcast by Newsnight on Tuesday, 15 March, 2005.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the link on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

Illegal logging
Click here to watch Roger Harrabin's report

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