THE world's largest importer of wood, Japan, has made a critical decision to pay Malaysia, the world's largest exporter of logs, to reduce its rate of cutting down virgin forests on the island of Borneo. The decision, endorsed on Nov. 23 by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), was presented by Japanese officials as a triumph in their efforts to reverse Japan's reputation as the biggest consumer of the world's remaining tropical forests.
The decision to help Malaysia through a $6 million payment to the ITTO reflects a new strategy by Japanese officials to forestall any more international pressure against Japanese companies whose global practices are considered environmentally destructive.
But environmentalists say the decision was a publicity gimmick by Japan, citing Malaysia's vague conditions and lack of timetable to achieve the goal of at least a 30 percent drop in the number of trees felled each year.
The ITTO, largely funded by Japan, was set up four years ago as a commodity-promotion group of 36 nations that either import or export timber.
An ITTO report estimates that all primary forests in the state of Sarawak on Borneo will disappear in 11 years at the present rate of deforestation. Another study estimates seven years. At least 40 percent of timber exports from Malaysia go to Japan.
Eager to display a commitment to the environment, Japan found common ground with Malaysia at the week-long meeting, with other nations in the ITTO group approving the agreement.
Malaysia has been the focus of an intense international campaign to help save Borneo's forests and to preserve the lifestyle of tribal forest dwellers. A group of Sarawak natives, for instance, was flown to Japan, where its members held a hunger strike outside the ITTO gathering.
Malaysia invited an ITTO mission to inspect its timber industry on Sarawak last year, the first time that the ITTO has investigated an individual member's domestic forestry.
Sarawak produced 543.38 million cubic feet of logs last year, an increase from 455 million cubic feet in 1988.
Malaysian officials say they reluctantly accepted the plan as a tactical ploy to head off recent moves among the European Community (EC) countries to ban imports of timber from exporting nations deemed to be destroying their forests.
The Dutch government has proposed such an import ban to start in 1995. If other EC countries go along, timber producers such as Malaysia stand to lose major export earnings. Timber is the third-largest export for Malaysia.
At several international meetings in recent years, Japan has lost out in important environmental decisions, such as bans on commercial whaling, drift-net fishing, and trade in elephant ivory.
To avoid diplomatic isolation, Japan went along with such decisions, but only reluctantly and often belatedly.
But on the issue of deforestation, which has been linked to global warming, the political clout of the Japanese timber-importing industry has prevented the government from bowing to international pressure to regulate overseas practices of Japanese timber companies.
Japan provides the lion's share of ITTO's funding, and plays host to ITTO headquarters in Yokohama near Tokyo.
The ITTO set a goal earlier this year to achieve ``sustainable management'' of tropical forests by the year 2000.
``It's not even the purpose that ITTO should be the steward of the world's forests,'' says Markku Simula, the group's outgoing chairman.
He says timber-exporting countries will preserve forests if consumer nations reduce trade barriers to finished or semifinished timber products, thus encouraging conservation of trees for the long term.
Until recently, Japan has taken the position that its timber and trading companies cannot do any more to prevent deforestation than what is required of them by governments in timber-producing countries.
``The United States and other countries do not simply accept what [timber-exporting] countries ask for,'' says Richard Forrest, East Asia representative of the National Wildlife Federation. ``Japan, however, tends to be very strict.''
But Japan's decision to pay Malaysia to adopt conservation measures may represent a new direction for Japan. Just a few years ago, by comparison, Japan planned a foreign aid project to build a logging road in Sarawak.
``The chief minister of Sarawak told me that he needs money if he is to ask local chieftains to stop cutting certain forests,'' says Kaoru Ishikawa, Japan's chief ITTO delegate. ``We could have given him millions, but we decided it was better to invite a few other consumer countries to make small contributions so that Japan is not alone.''
Other nations, such as the US, will provide about $2.5 million of the $8.5 million ITTO program for Sarawak. Part of the program includes setting aside two large tracts of land for tribal groups.
``The plan is a whitewash,'' says Thomas Jalong, Sarawak coordinator of Friends of the Earth. ``Japan, in trying to manage its image as the biggest timber consumer, only perpetuates the sufferings of native people in Sarawak.'' Critics also say that the ITTO decided not to monitor whether Malaysia complies with the plan.
``Japan is just making a smoke screen,'' says Yoichi Kuroda, coordinator of Japan Tropical Forest Action Network.
But ITTO chairman Simula says, ``This is a young organization which, in only four years, has made a breakthrough on the international scene.''