By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
The import of goods with Burma as the country of origin increased in the year 2000 as compared with 1999. The increase is due to imports of timber, mainly teak, and much of the timber imported is used in Norwegian wooden boats.
The Norwegian Government's policy has for years consisted in a non-binding call on businesses to boycott Burma because of the human rights situation in the country, pointing out that this is a measure the democratic forces in Burma are asking the outside world to take. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is calling for sanctions against Burma, with particular reference to the extensive use of forced labour. Lately, the Norwegian Burma Council and the Liberal Party have called for a formalised boycott.
NorWatch has located several of the players in Norway's trade with Burma. We called representatives of the companies engaged in timber imports and asked them two questions:
1. The Norwegian Government calls on businesses to boycott Burma. Why have you not followed this call?
2. Will you continue to trade in goods from Burma?
The results of the study were disheartening. Some of the companies were not aware that the Government is calling for a boycott of Burma. Others had heard the policy expressed on TV, but thought they could not take that kind of signal into consideration unless the Government formalises its policy in the form of legislation or other binding measures. None of the companies asked were planning to end their imports from Burma based on the Government's call for a boycott.
The companies that NorWatch polled exuded the attitude that politics and trade are two entirely different matters, and none of them seemed to be interested in other than purely legal considerations in their choice of potential trading partners. In its closing comments, however, the Interwood company (see NorWatch 1/2001) was downright positive about the possibility that a focus on this particular phenomenon might perhaps lead to a more concrete and comprehensible policy from the Government.
Below is the survey of the six companies contacted by NorWatch, and the answers we got. All the companies named imported timber originating from Burma in the year 2000.
1. - I have never heard that such a boycott call exists, says Bjørn Simonsen of Høllen Treindustri.
-The Government repeated it most recently in response to a parliamentary question just before Christmas. Would you care to comment?
- We probably have some goods deriving from Burma, but I haven't particularly reflected over it. I do know that these activities damage the environment, but apart from that, I have no opinion on how things are in Burma.
2. - There is no point in introducing unilateral Norwegian measures. That will only hurt our business sector. Nor would it therefore be natural for us to voluntarily adhere to that kind of boycott. We will only respond to a legislative change, Simonsen says.
1. - Yes, it could be that some of the goods we bought before Christmas came from Burma. You see, we build boats, and are concerned that our products meet high standards, says Ivar Hesselberg.
- The Government is calling for a boycott, with reference to gross violations of human rights, and your company will only comment that the boats are to meet high standards?
- We build boats, we don't do politics.
2. - We care nothing whatsoever for calls from the Government for voluntary sacrifices by industry, and we will not do anything at all to change our purchasing policy. Quality is our sole concern.
1. - Our customers specify what qualities they want, and we buy what is needed from a supplier in Sweden. If we are not to trade with Burma, the wooden boat industry in Norway might as well just close shop. Besides, there is no boycott with regard to Burma, what I am doing is entirely legal, says Tor Edgar Oftebro.
2. - I have no idea where the teak is coming from, and I'm not interested, either. I have no plans to make requirements with regard to natural forests or countries of origins in my orders, Oftebro concludes.
1. - We haven't got a Government calling for a boycott anymore, says Roald Hustvedt of Erling Hustvedt AS.
- Yes, we do; they repeated that call for a boycott in response to a parliamentary question just before Christmas.
- Oh, did they? Why are they making such calls without doing anything active and formal? Don't ask me about this, what matters is that we are not breaking the law, and it is still legal.
2. - The Government is inconsistent. There is no use in making empty requests in this way. I know that some of our wild teak products have ended up in projects run by Statsbygg (state-owned construction company - Transl.). Then it's a little too facile to blame us.
1. - We can't relate to populist initiatives of the kind that the Bondevik cabinet made, and which the new Government is now following up on. I understand that there's a problem with that lady in house arrest down there, but frankly, it is not up to the individual company to take that kind of thing into account. We listen to what our customers want, and then we get it, Nils Johnsen says.
2. - No, we are not going to do anything to change our purchasing policy. Only if this becomes a formal boycott, if this is legislated, then of course we will abide by it. But in the meantime, we will continue as before. By the way, it is a good thing that you people in NorWatch highlight this from that kind of angle. It is the Government's fault that we get these problems. I hope your article will make the politicians see that we in the timber trade are not getting to grips with these issues on our own.
1. - We are not importing directly from Burma, and we do not check the origin of the goods we buy. I don't feel that this is anything to do with us, says Morten Vister of Scan Limited.
2. - We will not change anything in our policy in the time to come. If the Government wants to make a ban, it's probably well thought-through, and we will abide by it.
"I hope your article will make the politicians see that we in the timber trade are not getting to grips with these issues on our own."
- Nils Johnsen, Interwood, 6.2.2001
"The Government is inconsistent. There's no use in making empty requests in this way. I know that some of our wild teak products have ended up in projects run by Statsbygg. Then it's a little too facile to blame us."
- Roald Hustvedt, Erling Hustvedt AS, 2.2.2001
"We are not importing directly from Burma, and we do not check the origin of the goods we buy. I don't feel that this is anything to do with us."
- Morten Vister, Scan Limited, 6.2.2001
"I have no idea where the teak is coming from, and I'm not interested, either. I have no plans to make requirements with regard to natural forests or countries of origins in my orders."
- Tor Edgar Oftebro, Mandal Treinnredning, 2.2.2001
"I do know that these activities damage the environment, but apart from that, I have no opinion on how things are in Burma."
- Bjørn Simonsen, Høllen Treindustri, 6.2.2001
"We care nothing whatsoever for calls from the Government for voluntary sacrifices by industry, and we will not do anything at all to change our purchasing policy. Quality is our sole concern."
- Ivar Hesselberg, Wikstens Båtbyggeri, 6.2.2001
Norwatch Newsletter 3/01