Environmental group urges Norway to review its US$400M-plus 'controversial' forestry and plantation investments after ditching pension fund's shares in Malaysian logging company Samling Global

LONDON , August 27, 2010 (press release) – The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) commends Norway’s divestment of its pension fund’s shares in Malaysian loggers Samling Global this week, but calls for a more comprehensive review of the fund's wider investments of over $400 million in other controversial forestry and plantation companies.

On 23rd August, the Norwegian Ministry of Finance announced the sale of $1.4 million of the Government Pension Fund – Global’s (GPFG) shares in Malaysian logging conglomerate Samling Global based on the findings of an independent study containing compelling evidence of illegal logging and environmental damage in Sarawak in Malaysia.

While EIA welcomes the divestment the organization’s research reveals Samling is only a small part of the picture. A recent EIA survey of GPFG’s December 2009 portfolio revealed $ 437 million (NOK 2.5 billion) of shareholdings in a host major forestry, agriculture, and related commodities companies.

With activities mainly focussed in Asia and the Pacific, the companies in which Norway has holdings control over 9.4 million hectares of land, largely in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia.

Many have been linked to deforestation and other severe environmental damage. Some have been accused of illegal logging and land clearance, rights and labour abuses, corruption, and significant tax fraud. All such activities would contravene the Ethical Guidelines of the Pension Fund if confirmed.

Over the past two years Norway has emerged as the leading financer of forest conservation in tropical countries through an ambitious global scheme to mitigate climate change by Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). In May Norway announced a billion dollar deal with Indonesia on REDD. Its growing investments in firms linked to deforestation activities appears at odds with its leadership on promoting forest protection through REDD.

EIA is calling on Norway’s Finance Ministry and the GPFG’s Ethical Council to work with officials at the country’s Climate and Forests Initiative, and with NGOs, to develop a comprehensive sectoral approach to screening forestry and plantations investments for compliance with the Fund’s Ethical guidelines, and Norway’s wider contribution to forest focussed climate mitigation.

Jago Wadley, EIA Forests Campaigner, said “Norway’s Samling divestment is a critical acknowledgement that financiers are driving deforestation and degradation, but that’s just the first step. While it’s not just a Norwegian problem, Norway has the opportunity to set an example for the world by aligning its sovereign wealth fund investments with its global goals to protect forests.”

Other than Samling Global, EIA identified Norwegian shareholdings in companies currently deforesting or planning to deforest large swathes of the last frontier of Papua, in eastern Indonesia. Papua makes up half of New Guinea Island, which harbours the third largest remaining tropical forests in the World – home to hundreds of tribal communities, high biodiversity, and a significant climate asset.

Norway holds $39 million worth of shares in Hong Kong-based Noble Group, which recently purchased a largely forested 32,000 hectare oil palm plantation licence in Sorong, West Papua. When EIA visited the plantation in April 2009 investigators met a four-year-old child who had been forced to sign a multi-decade land release contract. Landowners reported receiving equivalent to $2.50 per hectare, and complained that promised benefits had not materialised. Forest clearance is ongoing.

Norway’s Pension Fund also owns $1.2 million of shares in LG International Corp, and further shares in Medco Energi International, which together control 170,000 hectares and seek a total of one million hectares of forest in Papua for pulp and wood chip production. The land is part of a controversial food and “green energy” estate project in Merauke where 1.6 million hectares is targeted, but local and international opposition is becoming widespread.

Norway’s Pension Fund also holds $17.8 million of shares in the controversial Singapore-listed Golden Agri Resources, which controls Indonesia’s oil palm and pulp plantation giant, Sinar Mas Group. A recent independent assessment of Sinar Mas’ operations concluded that in one Indonesian province “all concessions examined were found to have carried out land clearance before the EIA [environmental impact assessment] was approved.” Sinar Mas is also clearing forests Lereh, Papua.

It is widely acknowledged that the activities of companies active in logging, oil palm and timber plantations are some of the major drivers of forest loss worldwide.

Andrea Johnson of EIA said “Norway and other nations are undermining their good intentions by paying countries like Indonesia to protect their forests, with one hand, and investing in deforestation without environmental or social safeguards with the other”.

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