There was a collective sigh of relief when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach shook elbows over the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. What with the unprecedented postponement of an Olympics and subsequent uncertainties over athletes, logistics, sponsors, a Tokyo 2020 main office employee contracting Covid-19, and the increasing friction between Abe’s and Tokyo governor (and former environment minister) Yuriko Koike’s administrations, Tokyo 2020 organising committee CEO Toshiro Muto has his work cut out. Organisers confirmed that the rescheduled opening ceremony would take place on July 23, 2021 – almost exactly one year after they were supposed to start. But while a year’s extra preparation may sound – to optimists – like a blessing in disguise, Tokyo 2020 has done little to appease the group of NGOs rallying for change in its sustainability methods. Tokyo 2020’s newest “Sustainability Pre-Games Report” – released last Thursday in what is the second of three pledged sustainability reports – laid out impressive targets such as reaching “100 per cent renewable energy for electricity used to power the Games”, a “reduction of 280,000 tonnes of [carbon dioxide]” in its carbon footprint, and “65 per cent [of] waste during the Games [to be] reused or recycled”, among others. Organisers also won nods of approval in their nationwide campaign to recycle phones for Olympic medals, and podiums to be made from public- and ocean-retrieved plastics. Tokyo 2020 even signed a letter of intent with the United Nations in 2018 to promote the contribution of sport to sustainable development. But critics have for years questioned whether they will be “a truly sustainable Games” with “no-one left behind” – Muto’s goal. That “true” implies accordance with facts and “no-one left behind” means everyone is accounted for. The fact is, there have been blind eyes turned in its timber procurement process that is potentially leaving entire species behind. ‘Zero deforestation commitments’ In an attempt to provide transparency in 2018, the Tokyo Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games released data on its sourcing procedures during the construction of new venues. The likes of the Japan National Stadium and the Ariake Arena were estimated to have used thousands of sheets of formwork plywood to mould concrete for subsequent structuring . A total of 68 per cent of the sheets used for new venues derived from Indonesia and Malaysia; all but the Yumenoshima Park Archery Field were documented to have used the sheets in some way. US-based Rainforest Action Nethawork (RAN) was one of more than 40 NGOs calling on the IOC in 2016 to demand organisers refrain from sourcing wood from endangered tropical forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. The groups later conducted their own investigations with local partners to expose major Olympics wood supplier Korindo Group, a Korean-Indonesian conglomerate facing accusations of cutting down rainforests and grabbing land from indigenous communities. Investigations found further issues with the company’s palm oil practices and consequences for critically endangered orangutans. Two years later, Tokyo 2020 updated its Sustainability Source Code to avoid similar controversies. It called for progress on its “zero deforestation commitments” and the “protection of high conservation value habitats”. The latest report – which was delayed for a month due to the Games’ postponement – devotes an entire section to sustainable sourcing and mentions timber specifically. Referring to the Code, organisers said it surveyed its Indonesian and Malaysian sites to check documents, risks and procedures in its “legality, planned management, conservation of ecosystems, consideration of rights of local people and occupational safety”. In reference to controversies over the concrete formwork plywood procurement supply chain, the report said it had inspected forests in both countries used for constructing relevant sites. “Site surveys confirmed that companies are engaged in sustainable forest management,” they concluded. The report also documented three complaints over its timber sourcing procedures – all of which were rejected for reasons such as not falling under the correct scope, alleged log suppliers not included in the official supply chain, and a “large number of businesses [having] little knowledge of forest certifications or experience handling certified wood”. In anticipation of the release, eight of the NGOs issued a joint statement last month urging organisers to properly address ongoing complaints regarding its role in the “use of large quantities of tropical plywood linked to destruction of rainforests for construction of [certain] Olympic venues”. They labelled the process a “fake sustainability” campaign. “In the previous Sustainability Report (published March 26, 2019), the organisers failed to confront this timber issue and instead engaged in greenwashing to appear as if they were keeping their sustainability promise,” read the statement, signed by Rainforest Action Network, Tuk Indonesia, Sarawak Campaign Committee, Bruno Manser Fund, Hutan Group, Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, Environmental Investigation Agency, and Friends of Earth Japan. “The organisers have decided to conveniently interpret their own rules and defy logic in order to dismiss any complaints lodged against them and claim no violations occurred. Moreover, the organisers have failed to demonstrate any willingness to learn from their mistakes.” In light of the newest publication, RAN said the “fake sustainability report” had “failed to mention how timber was sourced from the destruction of tropical forests in Southeast Asia for constructing Olympic venues”. The group argued that such disregard for learning from past mistakes and grievance mechanisms will leave the Games with a “bad legacy” above all else. In response, the IOC told the Post : “Over the past few years the IOC has had several exchanges with the group of environmental NGOs that you mention and has also met some of them face-to-face. Their work to highlight the best practices in sustainability is highly appreciated, and we look forward to a continued dialogue with them. "The grievance mechanism ... is managed by Tokyo 2020, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Japan Sports Council. We have full confidence that Tokyo 2020 is on target to reach their sustainability goals. As you can see from their recent Sustainability pre-Games Report, much progress has already been achieved and we can be hopeful that the legacy of Tokyo’s work will progress sustainable management in Japan in the future.” The Tokyo Organising Committee also told the Post : “Tokyo 2020 conducts procurement of timber for venue construction in accordance with its Sustainable Sourcing Code for Timber. “There is a wide range of viewpoints and interpretations regarding what it means to be sustainable. The Sustainable Sourcing Code for Timber was therefore formulated through repeated discussions in a working group with various experts on the environment, human rights and corporate social responsibility, among other subjects. Tokyo 2020 also held discussions with environmental NGOs and industry bodies and took the opinions of various stakeholders into account when developing the sourcing code.” The committee also referred to its previously established “grievance mechanisms” used for the two complaints filed by NGOs in 2018, saying: “These grievances were addressed and the status results have been published on our website”. “It should also be noted that sustainable procurement initiatives remain a novel concept in Japan. This sourcing code aims to be become a point of reference for corporations wishing to implement their own initiatives, and highlights the challenges faced by construction companies in sourcing sustainable timber as well as the opinions shared by NGOs,” organisers added. The Post has also contacted Korindo for comment. ‘No admission or reflection’ Over the past four years, RAN & company have officially submitted six complaints to the Tokyo Organising Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and the Japan Sports Council (JSC) over alleged violations of organisers’ self-written sustainability codes. The sixth was rejected earlier this year, much to disappointment of RAN senior campaigner Hana Heineken. “Our view is that Abe has already failed to complete an Olympics in complete form because their commitment to sustainability has already been unfulfilled,” said Heineken, referring to the prime minister previously saying he would only postpone the Games if they could not be held in “complete form”. “The way that they’ve dealt with the complaints and grievances filed is also frankly shameful and a demonstration of how they are trying to cover up their mistakes,” said Heineken, who helped submit two additional petitions at the end of March. The most urgent set of complaints dealt with the obstruction of Bornean orangutans. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) labels the orange-haired primates a critically endangered species experiencing sharp population declines. It estimates there are 104,700 Bornean, 7,500 Sumatran and no more than 800 Tapanuli orangutans left in Indonesia. “This is the most contentious [issue] as it concerns the Olympics’ use of wood that is derived from converting rainforests, including critically endangered orangutan habitats. We confronted the Tokyo Metropolitan Government about this when we met in February, explaining the claims that one of the suppliers overlapped with the habitat of the critically endangered orangutans,” Heineken said. “They did confirm that the supplier destroying the habitats was in their supply chain. We appreciated that admission but they said despite the fact that the Indonesian government did this assessment showing there were orangutans in that area, they said it did not necessarily guarantee that orangutans live there ... at the time of the logging. Now that is also absurd, because obviously when you start logging, orangutans are going to flee.” Heineken said the other complaints included sourcing from lawbreaking timber suppliers, human rights violations against Indonesian communities trying to fend off illegal land-grabbers, and critically damaging the habitats of endangered species. All were attached with investigative accounts and proof of – at the very least – suspicious activity. “One of our main criticisms of the first sustainability report was that it really made no admission or reflection of the sustainability issues that had happened with the Olympics. For example, they talked about how they had revised their policy on procuring timber products to exclusively exclude timber that derived from converting forests, but they made no explanation of why they made that change,” she said. “We’re still challenging [the rejected complaints] but the organisers’ position is that these complaints are either out of scope or do not satisfy the criteria for bringing the complaint. "In one of the complaints, we noted the Indonesian company they purchased this [timber from] has been involved in illegal land grabbing for the sake of harvesting timber and turning the land into a oil palm plantation." The human rights violation that Korindo was involved in was a violation of the Olympic procurement policy that specifically said it would be respecting human rights. "They haven't given us enough evidence to back up their assertion that this timber was not part of their supply chain. But they dismissed the complaint anyway on those grounds," Heineken added, before citing an official organisers’ response from December 2019. “They’re bending reality here, saying the timber that we were complaining about ... is correct and construction was largely done by this time. If you read between the lines, they’re basically saying that before the sustainability sourcing code in 2019 it did not say they cannot use conversion timber.” ‘No-one left behind’ Original Tokyo 2020 timber procurement codes also outlined how timber must be harvested from forests on a medium- to long-term forest management scheme which considered surrounding ecosystems. After finding out in a meeting with the TMG in February that “virtually all” of the procured timber came from converted rainforests, RAN felt Tokyo organisers’ lack of respect for its own rules must be brought to attention. “The clear-cutting of rainforests is no way considered conserving the ecosystem, especially when you consider the majority of land-based biodiversity on this Earth is actually in tropical rainforests and Indonesia itself has one of the densest bio-diversities on the planet. Clear-cutting these rainforests clearly has an effect on the ecosystem,” Heineken said. “There’s a very clear provision in the TMG grievance mechanism procedures that they will accept the complaint if there is a suspicion that the procurement policy had been violated. There clearly is at minimum a suspicion, but they have refused to stick by that procedure and have insisted that there be a guarantee that there is a violation.” As developments continue to unfold in the unlucky saga of the 2020 Olympic Games, Heineken hopes that the tireless work of her peers does not get swallowed up. She also clarified that the collective NGOs are “not necessarily saying it’s 100 [per cent] illegal because conversion timber is allowed in Indonesia ... but it would still be a violation of the Tokyo 2020 policy in that it’s unsustainable”. “The Olympics is in the headlines so we do want to get these mistakes they made to the attention of the public and whatnot, but we also understand that rightly the coronavirus issue is at the top of the Olympics agenda,” Heineken said. “The silver lining of a postponement is that it allows more time for our complaints to mature and possibly be revisited by the authorities. Again we’re still challenging that they said ‘no’ to our complaints but if they hold firm to their stance, then we are considering resubmitting our complaints with additional information from what they have provided to us. That just strengthens our position.” Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.