Inquiry to investigate illegal logging

A special Commission of Inquiry has been set up into alleged illegal logging in Vanuatu in 2016–19.

The Minister of Justice and Community Services, Esmon Saimon, has this week appointed a commission to investigate the issue.

Minister Saimon, says a top Government’s priority is to cut down and stop corruption in every level of society, including in government institutions.

He says police investigations into alleged corruption are taking place under the Police Powers Act 2017 and that the appointment of the commission is taking place under the Commissions of Inquiry Act.

Appointed to the Commission of Inquiry are: Willie Alick Pakoa, Albert William, Flora Bani, George Borugu, Jeff Patunvanu; and William Nasak as chairman, Kalkot Mataskelekele as assessor and Livo Mele as secretary.

The First Political Advisor to the Ministry of Justice, Jessy Dick, says the commission will investigate alleged illegal logging activities between 2016–19.

“These illegal logging activities are alleged to have taken place on the islands of Santo, Malekula, Maewo, Pentecost and Gaua in the Banks group,” Mr Dick said.

“This investigation may also find other islands where illegal logging has been taking place,” he said.

Mr Dick says, in November 2019, a non-profit organisation, the Campaign for Justice (C4J), released a report showing logging was underway from 2017–19, despite a 2018 Ministry of Agriculture logging ban.

The C4J report showed blue water and rosewood logging was underway in the protected Vatthe Conservation area in Santo and identified the suspects involved, including public servants, landowners and private interests.

Mr Dick says the Department of Forestry should have responded to the allegations in the C4J report to explain what action they had taken or to provide evidence that the logging had not taken place.

C4J alleged that Chinese traders were carrying out the logging on Santo and were exporting the timber to the Solomon Islands, with a permit from the 2017 Minister of Agriculture.

Mr Dick says the Forestry Department must explain whether the Chinese timber traders were authorised to take timber and should trace the exports of the timber to the Chinese mainland or other overseas markets.

Mr Dick says the Commission of Inquiry has been set up to look further onto the allegations raised by C4J.

“There are some powers and information that the Campaign for Justice did not have for its investigation, such as under forestry, labour and investment laws,” he said.

“The Commission of inquiry’s task is to fully complete the investigations done by the Campaign for Justice.

“It appears what happened has breached the Forestry Act.”

The Justice Minister wants the investigation completed quickly.

He told the commission investigators that, “You all are here today to start work that the current Government wants completed as quickly as possible and within three months.”

“The Government wants the report into these alleged illegal activities tabled in the Parliament in the first half of 2021 by the Ministers of both Justice and Finance.”

“The Government trusts you will complete the investigations and that is why I have appointed you all today.”

The swearing of oath was conducted by the Commissioner of Oath, Tom Bethuel, and was witnessed by the Ministers of Justice and Finance and the Acting Director General of the Ministry of Justice.

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