The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is supposed to be the greenest in the 120-year modern history of the global event. But how can that be when the Olympic stadium — the glittering $1.5 billion monument to the competition — is being built in part with tropical wood looted from the remote Sarawak region in Malaysia?

That’s the big question dogging Olympic planners as environmental groups from across the world have complained that the timber used for the plywood formwork — priceless virgin wood from intact forests — is being sourced from Shin Yang, a major timber company in Sarawak that, activists say, operates in contested areas.

The concrete formwork is fundamental to building the Tokyo stadium, a Kengo Kuma-designed facility that features eye-catching lattice work and vegetated concourses. Located on the site of the old national stadium in downtown Tokyo, the 60,000- to 80,000-seat Olympic venue is a scaled back affair compared with the dazzling original — a swooping, $2 billion super-stadium designed by Zaha Hadid.

Still, what’s under construction in Tokyo will be a revelation, and in 2020 it will sit at the center of the sports universe for opening and closing ceremonies and the track-and-field competitions.

But as the Olympics creep ever nearer, the criticism remains.

“This looks to us like profit-driven business as usual for the Japanese construction industry rather than the realization of Japan’s commitment to the most environmentally friendly Olympics ever,” said Rick Jacobsen of London-based Global Witness, one of the many environmental groups raising objections. “The Olympic organizers need to change course quickly or risk losing all credibility.”

That doesn’t seem likely, at least from the organizers’ point of view.

When Civil + Structural Engineer reached out for comment, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said, “The IOC has been assured that the wood used for the Tokyo Olympic stadium is [Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification] (PEFC) certified timber and meets Tokyo 2020’s Sourcing Code for Timber. As the Japanese Sport Council is constructing the venue, we suggest following up with them for further information. We have full confidence that Tokyo 2020 is on target to reach their sustainability goals for the Olympic Games 2020.”

When reached by Civil + Structural Engineer, the Japan Sport Council echoed the IOC’s remarks: “The plywood pointed out by the NGOs is certified by an international certification (PEFC) and all the other plywood in the site, including the future procurement, shall meet the sustainability code.”

Shin Yang plywood mill in Bintulu, Sarawak

Frustrated that the initial call for an inquiry was not heeded, the rights groups doubled down on their formwork assertions in a press release issued July 24.

“The glaring lack of transparency about the origin of the rainforest wood and weak procurement safeguards make it impossible to guarantee its sustainability or legality,” the press release said. “NGOs claim that the IOC’s failure to address the obvious risk of sustainability is a clear breach of its own commitment to include sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games.”

The press release was issued jointly by Markets for Change, Rainforest Action Network, Bruno Maser Fund, Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, Rainforest Rescue, and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association.   

Begun in December and expected to be complete by November 2019, the Olympic stadium is just the latest example of Japan’s long relationship with tropical woods harvested from exotic locales. According to a 2014 report published by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, as much as 12 percent of the timber — and another 7 percent of wood in the paper-products sector — imported into Japan is at high risk of illegality.

Chatham House places the current issue in its historical context. The island nation’s forests were depleted during World War II. As the nation waited for the replanting to mature, a timber industry developed with a heavy reliance on imports. Japan’s buying power and lax import restrictions buoyed the industry, but as Japan ultimately recovered from the war, “there has been no significant progress on developing formal legislation to eliminate illegal wood-based products from its market, as has been done in the U.S., EU, and Australia,” said the Chatham House report.

While the report looks at all of Japan, the issue is largely driven by Tokyo and its voracious appetite. At about 38 million people, it’s the largest metropolitan area in the world. Japan functions under the goho-wood system — goho being the Japanese word for legal. Administered through forest certification, trade associations, or the companies themselves, the goho system is problematic because it is voluntary and not legally binding, according to the Chatham House report.

According to the report, “The goho-wood system has been vigorously promoted, and the number of companies registered as goho-wood suppliers has increased. This has probably contributed to raising awareness about illegal logging. However, in terms of eliminating illegal wood-based products from the domestic market, the system is less than adequate, especially compared with the legally binding regulations of other consumer countries.”

On the global market, most of the illegal wood-based products are sourced from China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. A major consumer of woods from dubious sources is India, home to the world’s second largest population and, based on the metrics of the World Economic Forum, the world’s seventh largest economy.

High resolution (50 cm) imagery taken by DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 satellite showing logging in a Shin Yang timber license area in the Borneo rainforest, viewed using Google Earth.

Sarawak suffers

Meanwhile, the people in Sarawak are suffering. According to activist Hana Heineken of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, the local courts are clogged with multiple lawsuits brought by the native Penan people against logging companies and the Sarawak government, which for years has been accused of corruption and cronyism.

In one such suit, filed in the High Court of Bintulu against Shin Yang and Sarawak, the plaintiff, Matu Tugang, representing his tribe, sheds light on the key issue: The logged landscape is being converted into oil palm plantations.

“The large-scale oil palm plantations have caused depletion of the forest in our land, resulting in the depletion of our food supply,” the lawsuit’s witness statement says. “We, as Penans, get our life from the land. We do not have money in the bank. We get our food from the land. Sago is our money, fruit is our money, wild game is our money, fish is our money. Today, rice and tapioca are our money too. But now the wild boars are gone, the fishes are gone, the fruit trees are gone. It is hard even to plant rice or ubi kayu. That is why we are asking for justice. The Seping and Jaik are so important to us — they provide everything we need to live. But now it is all gone because of these oil palm plantations. This is why we are asking for justice.”

The case, originally filed in 2009, is unresolved, Heineken said.

Of course, wood sourced from conflicted areas is not just an issue haunting Japan. In the United States, the Department of Justice in Feb. 2016 announced a $13 million fine for Virginia-based Lumber Liquidators. The company was found guilty of importing hardwood flooring made from Mongolian oak. The wood was sourced in eastern Russia, home of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopards.

“By knowingly and illegally sourcing timber from vulnerable forests in Asia and other parts of the world, Lumber Liquidators made American consumers unwittingly complicit in the ongoing destruction of some of the world’s last remaining intact forests,” the Department of Justice said in its press release.

The issue of illegally sourced wood is so acute that Interpol, the world’s largest police department, founded Project LEAF in 2012. By establishing the project, Interpol hopes to “counter various aspects of forestry crime, including illegal logging and timber trafficking, and related crimes, such as corruption.”

Interpol has its work cut out for it. In a Dec. 2016 report titled, “Uncovering the Risks of Corruption in the Forestry Sector,” Interpol chronicled the global impact of illegal logging. According to the report, illegal logging accounts for as much as 50 to 90 percent of forestry activities in key tropical countries like Sarawak. Every two seconds, Interpol reported, an area the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers around the globe.

Interpol also said that the problem is entrenched. Government corruption, cronyism, nepotism, fraud, and bribery all play a role, as do village poachers, armed militias, firewood traders, and local elected officials. Fueling the trade is the astronomical dollars. The Interpol report cited a global forestry sector worth $606 billion a year, with a global cost of corruption of about $29 billion.  And graft takes place across the life cycle of the timber supply chain — permitting, harvesting, transport, processing, export, and sale — with the harvest being the leading source of corruption, and forestry officials the leading culprits.

In the middle of this titanic industry sits Shin Yang, the leader in Malaysian plywood. The company operates tree plantations and sawmills in Sarawak, where it’s headquartered, and touts Japan as its largest importer, followed by China, Korea, the U.S., and Australia. Shin Yang is part of what’s known as “The Big Six” Malaysia logging companies, a group that includes Rimbunan Hijau, Samling Global Ltd, WTK Holdings Bhd, KTS Forest Plantations Sdn Bhd, and Ta Ann Holdings Bhd, which collectively control a reported 3.7 million hectares — more than 14,000 square miles — in timber concessions, according to Asia-based The Star.

Shin Yang recently announced a reduction in plywood imports to Japan, citing a reduced supply of timber. And according to a report by NIKKEI Asian Review, the Sarawak government is strengthening law enforcement against illegal logging and is tightening regulations. On top of that, the timber premium assessed by Sarawak — a tax used to fund infrastructure projects — has increased, meaning higher prices for construction in Tokyo as it prepares for the Olympics.

Citing recent trade statistics, the NIKKEI Asian Review illuminated the sheer scale of the plywood trade between Shin Yang and its Japanese buyers. In 2016, Japan imported 1.07 million cubic meters of Malaysian plywood — 40 percent of all plywood imports — and of the Malaysian amount, Shin Yang products accounted for about half that volume.

Civil + Structural Engineer reached out to Shin Yang for comment, but the company did not respond.

Tokyo 2020 developed the Sustainable Sourcing Code for Timber in June 2016 and, according to the IOC, developed the plan with input from human and environmental rights groups, as well as those from the world of Corporate Social Responsibility. The code, among other things, stipulates that plywood formwork should be reused — it’s typically thrown away after a couple of applications — and that plywood formwork comes from timber sustainably and responsibly harvested.

In the event it’s not, and if there is “adequately concrete evidence” that wood is coming from dubious sources, “Tokyo 2020 will conduct an investigation into said timber,” according to the Tokyo code.

But one of the chief regulations in the Tokyo code — compliance with PEFC, the world’s largest forest certification system — has a loophole that logging companies are all too willing to use, activists say. According to PEFC spokesman Thorsten Arndt, for products to carry the PEFC label they must contain a minimum of 70 percent certified material, with the remaining 30 percent from “controlled sources.”

Some logged areas are being converted into oil palm plantations.

Arndt, in an email interview from Geneva, Switzerland, said he knows of no current complaints filed against companies for non-compliance with certification requirements in Sarawak. In further explaining the PEFC’s role in the timber industry, Arndt said the PEFC Chain of Custody certificate is a key.

“[It] outlines requirements for tracking certified material from the forest to the final product to ensure that the wood contained in the product or product line originates from certified forests,” Arndt said.

However, citing the 70-percent threshold for PEFC labeling, activists say there’s a big loophole in the system, with the true origins of the remaining 30 percent of PEFC timber left to the unknown. Moreover, the Malaysia Timber Certification Council has weak standards, activists say, further aggravating the problem.

A key passage in the Olympic sourcing code references “timber that is harvested through logging activity that is considerate toward the rights of indigenous people and other local residents.”

And that’s where the big rub is. The rights groups have provided photo evidence of what they say is illegal Shin Yang material on the stadium site — plywood formwork made from wood sourced in a disputed area of Sarawak, specifically land contracted under License LPF/0018. But that photo, taken from a distance, does not hold up, according to the Japan Sport Council. In response to a Civil + Structural Engineer request for comment, the council outright denied the photo’s credibility.

“The press release from the NGO group dated April 20th shows a sample photo of the Shin Yang’s plywood sign next to a photo of our construction site,” the council said. “But the sample photo itself has no relation to the site.”

Who is right and who is wrong? Officially, the answer might never be known. But for activist Heineken, the issue of illegal wood flowing into Japan has been there long before the new stadium and, unfortunately, will probably be there after the Olympics is over.

“Frankly, this has been pointed out for years,” Heineken said. “The reason we’re focusing on the Olympics is to raise greater awareness of how tropical wood is being used in Japan … Our goal is to help Japan change its practices before it’s too late.”

Richard Massey is director of newsletters and special publications at Zweig Group and editor of The Zweig Letter. He can be reached at