JAPAN is ever so slowly rising to calls that it curb its appetite for tropical wood. Not all calls are from environmentalists. Jungle dwellers, tropical nations, and even Japanese leaders warn that the world's largest importer of tropical lumber will need to cut back demand for practical reasons.
One reason is that activists in Europe and the United States threaten consumer boycotts of firms that import tropical timber. Another reason is that rain forests are shrinking and more tropical nations are banning log exports.
"Appropriate [log] trading is now necessary," says Yoshihiro Koyanagi, a Japanese forestry official. "Tropical forests have become a big concern."
Last month, Malaysia proposed cutting its log exports in half by 1995. Such a move would follow export bans by Indonesia and the Philippines. Last year, Japan relied on the Malaysian state of Sarawak for 92 percent of the 11.2 million cubic feet of tropical logs that it imported.
"We have to reduce imports as much as possible and find substitute materials," says Akira Taniguchi, general manager for wood products in Marubeni Corp., a Japanese trading company.
Most of Japan's tropical log imports go to make plywood. The government is pressing construction firms to find alternatives. Last year, for instance, Marubeni started making fiberboard out of spent rubber trees in Malaysia.
"We feel that maybe within five years, [a 50 percent reduction of imports] will be quite a practical figure," he adds. Marubeni is Japan's largest importer of tropical timber.
Twice in the past year, Sarawak natives have traveled to Tokyo to meet officials, make public protests, and warn of the demise of their lands from overlogging.
"With each passing day, our land is destroyed," says Mujan Wan of the Kayan tribe of Sarawak. Such pleas brought an unusual public apology from Japan's environment chief last year.
Japan resisted action
Until recently, Japan has begged off taking much action to save rain forests by explaining that its companies need only take steps to preserve another nation's forests as that nation requires.
"Everybody has a different point of view," says Mr. Taniguchi of Marubeni. "We can't say what is right."
Last year, however, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), a 47-member group of timber exporting and importing nations, reported Sarawak's forests would disappear in 11 years at the present rate of cutting. Japan helped set up ITTO and pays most of its costs.
The ITTO report put Japan on the spot. In November, ITTO asked Malaysia to reduce logging on Sarawak. It also has set a goal to achieve sustainable management of world forests by the year 2000. This week, the group met to draft plans to meet that goal.
"Japan is going to have to reduce imports no matter what happens," says Campbell Blowden of Greenpeace.
Many Japanese trading companies set up internal environmental divisions, partly to counteract public criticism.
Mitsubishi Corp., the largest trading company, launched an experiment to see if tropical forest can be started from scratch. It also sent comic books to Japanese high schools which told a a story alleging that deforestation is caused by natives and that foreign criticism of Japanese logging is just "Japan-bashing."
In late February, Japan's forestry agency called in 53 trading houses and told them to submit records of their timber imports for the past five years and estimates for the next five years.
Most trading companies predict a 10 to 20 percent drop in log imports. But Yoichi Kuroda, head of the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, says a 90 percent drop is needed to save Sarawak from deforestation.
'A good first step'
"The reduction is a good first step," said Mr. Kuroda, " but we are suspicious because the reduction is probably equal to the projected drop of housing starts in Japan."
Forestry official Koyanangi says the agency might take "administrative guidance" against firms which do not cut log imports. But trading firms see themselves as independent of such government action, says Marubeni's Taniguchi. He charges that the agency is trying to stretch its powers because of a decline in domestic forestry.
"In Japan, we say there is a 'no touch' sign around our forests," he says. "Now the government wants to put one on tropical forests."