With the demise of Gunns Limited, it finally looked like Tasmania’s precious old growth forests were going to be protected. However, the emergence of Malaysian timber giant Ta Ann Holdings has provoked great concern in Tasmania.
Ta Ann Holdings have established two rotary peeled veneer mills in Tasmania, while securing a 20 year wood supply contract with Forestry Tasmania. Ta Ann Holdings are directly linked to the Sarawak State Government, and have been widely condemned for their environmental record.
Until recently, their presence in Tasmania had escaped scrutiny.
In Malaysia, Ta Ann Holdings has been granted 675,000 hectares of timber and plantation concessions by the Sarawak State Government without tender. The company was founded in the mid 1980s by Datuk Abdul Hamed Sepawi and Datuk Wahab Dolah.
Both men are major shareholders of Ta Ann Holdings and key figures within the ruling PBB party of Sarawak. Hamed Sepawi was elected party treasurer in 2007, while Dolah has been a member of the Sarawak State parliament since the 1980s, when he earned the nickname, the Giant Killer, for his 1987 election victory over former Chief Minister Tun Rahman. Dolah’s brother, Sa’id Bin Haji Dolah, is also a major shareholder of Ta Ann Holdings.
It is Hamed Sepawi who is the critical figure here. Hamed Sepawi is the cousin of the Sarawak Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, who has ruled Sarawak for 30 years. Hamed Sepawi is a central figure within the Taib empire. Not only is he the Executive Chairman of Ta Ann Holdings, he chairs construction giant Naim Cendera, is a director of the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation, heads the Sarawak Energy Berhad, among other responsibilities. According to an article published in the Sarawak Report in September, Hamed Sepawi is a key business nominee of the Chief Minister.
Clare Rewcastle-Brown of online publication The Sarawak Report, tells New Matilda that it is the corruption within Sarawak that is the key issue: "Ta Ann is the product of blatant political corruption and nepotism. No one doing business with Ta Ann could avoid seeing that this is the case."
The Taib family empire is vast, and extends well beyond Sarawak. Research undertaken by Swiss NGO Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF) has found that the Taib family have interests in 400 companies, across 25 countries — including 22 Australian based companies. BMF claim that in Malaysia alone, the family has shareholdings in 14 companies, totalling $US1.46 billion.
Announcing this research on 5 December, Director of Bruno Manser Fonds Lukas Straumann said, "we consider these corporate interests of the Taib family to be illicit assets". Straumann continued, "there are clear indications that Taib has abused public office to build a corruption and fraud based billion dollar empire".
Critical of the relationship between environment group WWF and Ta Ann Holdings, Bruno Manser Fonds wrote to WWF International’s General Director, urging the organisation to cease ties with Ta Ann Holdings, deeming the company "unfit for co-operation … because of their close association with the Malaysian Taib Family", which BMF describe as "one of South East Asia’s largest corruption networks". Speaking to New Matilda, Malaysian human rights activist Keruah Usit said, "(Ta Ann) will stop at nothing to extract profit".
Hamed Sepawi is also connected to timber giant Samling, which has been the focus of significant scrutiny from environment groups such as Greenpeace. Through his ownership of Perkapalan Damai Timur, Hamed Sepawi has a 5 per cent interest in Samling Global Limited, while he has has previously held an interest in subsidary Lingui Developments.
Furthermore, in a circular to shareholders issued by Lingui Developments on 20 October 2005, Hamed Sepawi is shown to be a major shareholder of Ravenscourt Sdn Bhd, by virtue of his interest in Perkapalan Damai Timur. Recommendations from the Council On Ethics to the Sarawak Ministry of Finance, issued on 15 September 2010, focused on the "severe environmental damage" caused by Lingui’s "illegal logging operations". The report singles out Ravenscourt, referring to analysis of the concession area which found that "some of the areas currently being logged are so steep … One particular area of very intense logging extends about 300m up the mountain’s eastern side".
The interests of Hamed Sepawi also extend to Grand Perfect Sdn Bhd, which is a particularly controversial company within Sarawak. On 14 October 2011, The Sarawak Report released findings that the company, which had been assumed as being owned by Ta Ann Holdings, was actually owned by Gasijaya. Gasijaya had been given the RM 180 million, 500,000 hectare Grand Perfect project by the State of Sarawak. The Sarawak Report found Hamed Sepawi to be the owner of Gasijaya.
Malaysian Parliamentarian Baru Bian visited Tasmania in August and expressed surprise that Ta Ann had been welcomed into Tasmania. Referring to the supply agreement struck between Ta Ann and the Tasmanian Government, Baru Bian commented to The Mercury on 6 August 2011, that "When they were saying it was cheaper to buy here (Tasmania), I thought there was definitely something interesting in it".
Ta Ann Holdings operations in Australia have been heavily subsidised by federal and state governments, directly and indirectly. Despite these subsidies, Senator Bob Brown claims Ta Ann has made a net loss of $18 million since setting up shop in Tasmania.
A recent report released by the Huon Valley Environment Centre, Behind The Veneer, has found Ta Ann Tasmania to be sourcing timber from old growth forests. The report finds Ta Ann Tasmania to have accessed timber from logging operations taking place in old growth forests on 35 occasions between 2009 and 2011.
David Ridley, Director of Ta Ann Tasmania, rejects these claims: "Ta Ann Tasmania is not a logging company." According to Ridley, "the veneer for international sales comes from forests managed to internationally certified PEFC sustainability standards".
Speaking to New Matilda, Jenny Weber, of the Huon Valley Environment Centre, in turn rejected this argument, stating that "Ta Ann represents a major new threat to Tasmania’s forests". Weber claims Ta Ann is receiving timber from areas of high conservation forests, "such as recent logging in the Picton Valley and in the far south in Catamaran". According to Weber, Ta Ann attempts to "distance itself from logging", while not being entirely truthful about the source of their timber when communicating to international markets.
This claim is supported by Rewcastle-Brown who says of the company’s activities in Sarawak, "Ta Ann are clearly being deliberately misleading in trying to give the impression they are using plantation wood, when they are in fact tearing their logs from the jungle and leaving the older and larger trees to rot".
Recently, Weber and former leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Peg Putt, visited Japanese companies who were part of Ta Ann’s key market. Speaking with the companies, Weber found that "they had been led to believe that the source of their timber was from plantations", and indicated that they would be raising concerns with their suppliers.
Of further concern are the delays in the finalisation of the federal conservation agreement that will protect 430,000 hectares of forest in Tasmania. According to Weber, these delays have been caused by the needs created by Ta Ann’s supply contract.
"The company has been ushered in by the state government", says Weber. According to Weber, the Tasmanian forests minister has written to customers of Ta Ann in an attempt to discredit those opposed to the presence of the company in Tasmania.
Recent revelations in the Sarawak Report make the situation look even murkier. Hamed Sepawi is Taib-appointed head of Sarawak Energy Berhad, which has a monopoly over power generation in Sarawak. In 2010, it was announced that government-owned Hydro-Tasmania subsidiary Entura has signed a lucrative agreement in 2010 with Sarawak Energy Berhad. According to the Sarawak Report, this agreement will see the Tasmanian company work on three dam projects within Sarawak.
The apparent willingness of the Tasmanian Government to defend Ta Ann and provide the company with access to timber at cut-rate prices (ignoring their history in Sarawak) has worried observers. Rewcastle-Brown recently visited Tasmania to raise concerns about the company. She told New Matilda, "I was taken aback by just how heavy, vociferous and unquestioning the support for Ta Ann seems to be in some quarters of your political establishment. It is a level of support that seems to have engendered a totally closed mind to any concerns, even of the most genuine and pressing nature."
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