Paul Pavol lives in Pomio, an area on the southern edge of Papua New Guinea where old-growth rainforests were once abundant. “Forest is our wholesale. Forest is our timber yard. Forest is our freezer. Forest is our supplier,” he said. “It was free for us.”

But in 2010, “a big barge brought in the machines,” said Pavol, who spoke via Global Witness, a nonprofit that works to protect the rights of indigenous people to their land and livelihood. “There were policemen on the barge,” Pavol recalled. “We were the first people to go up there and tell them, ‘No, stop this!’ When I see ships taking my logs away, I honestly cry.”

Paul Pavol and his wife, Janet Pavol, in front of their house in the village of Mu, Pomio District, New Britain, Papau New Guinea. Source: Global Witness

The loggers brought government-issued leases to clear timber in what the villagers — and Global Witness say — was a violation of the country’s own constitution, which protects the land rights of the people who live there.

What happened in Pavol’s village was not an isolated case. Approximately one-third of the timber coming out of Papua New Guinea in recent years has a high risk of being illegal because it came from questionable government-issued leases, according to Global Witness, which has tracked the journey of timber, known as taun, from Papua New Guinea to China — where it is turned into flooring and furniture — and then to American retail stores. The organization laid out its findings in a new report.

“These forests… are being ravaged by logging and rapidly cleared for oil palm and other industrial plantations, [depriving] indigenous communities of an important source of food, clean water, medicine and other necessities, and the world of a critical resource in preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change,” said Rick Jacobsen, leader of the Global Witness campaign against illegal logging.

“Papua New Guinea’s people have been caretakers of their environment for millennia, but communities like Paul Pavol’s need the support of their government and the international community in their struggle to protect their forests and their future,” Jacobsen added.

The U.S. Lacey Act bans the import of illegal wood, but Global Witness believes U.S. companies have been lax about scrutinizing their supply chains. The United States is the largest buyer of wood products from China, according to the organization.

Bewani landowners walk across a pile of felled logs in West Sepik Province. Source: Global Witness

Responding to the Global Witness investigation, hardware chain Home Depot’s supplier, Home Legend, agreed to stop selling exotic taun wood flooring and — along with Nature Home, one of China’s largest flooring sellers — said it would review its supply chains and sourcing procedures. “We welcome the decision taken by Home Legend to stop selling risky wood from Papua New Guinea,” Jacobsen said. “Unfortunately, not all companies were responsive.”

Papua New Guinea’s constitution guarantees legal ownership of the land to the people who live on it. However, in recent years, the government has issued special leases to logging companies allowing them to clear and export the timber. Critics say the leases were obtained through fraud and forgery.

“Papua New Guinea’s indigenous people have legal rights to their land under the country’s constitution, but the government is ignoring these rights and handing out vast areas of land and forests to foreign logging and agribusiness interests,” Jacobsen said. “A human rights disaster is unfolding as people lose the resources they depend on for their livelihoods and ways of life.”

Global Witness followed the 9,000-mile journey of timber harvested from the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest, shipped to China, where it is turned into flooring, furniture and other products, and then to U.S. stores, where it is sold.

The investigation drew upon fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, and an analysis of publicly and commercially available company and trade data, field and desk research. Investigators examined each step in the supply chain using independent researchers in China, and engaged with companies in several countries, according to Global Witness.

Neither the Papua New Guinea department of environment and conservation, nor the Chinese embassy in Washington, responded to emails seeking a reaction to the Global Witness report.

Drone image of a rubber plantation in Central New Hanover Special Agriculture Business Lease, New Ireland Province. Source: Global Witness

The group also used high-resolution satellite imagery to study logging and forest-clearing operations in Papua New Guinea, and visited several areas in person to interview members of the community affected by them. Additionally, they used a commercial system to track cargo ships carrying timber from lease areas in Papua New Guinea to major timber ports in China.

“Papua New Guinea may seem a world away to U.S. buyers, but our investigations show how wood being stripped from forests in Papua New Guinea can be found in everyday items manufactured in China and sold on U.S. retail shelves,” Jacobsen said. “Companies need to trace their wood back to its origins and ensure it isn’t fueling illegal logging and the theft of indigenous land on the other side of the world.”

While the United States and European countries have laws that prohibit the import of illegal wood, China has no such measures, the group said. A comprehensive law against illegal timber could benefit Chinese exporters, helping to reassure markets that wood products sourced from China don’t violate laws back home, Global Witness said.

Such a situation prompted a well-publicized 2016 criminal case involving Lumber Liquidators, a Virginia-based flooring retailer. The company agreed to pay more than $13 million in penalties, community service and forfeited assets for importing Chinese-made flooring linked to illegal logging in Russia.

The report urged Papua New Guinea to cancel illegal leases that result in actions that are destroying sources of food, water and medicine on which indigenous communities rely, and it urged China to take serious steps to exclude illegal timber from its international markets. Such a move “would have an immediate and worldwide effect in promoting good governance and sustainable development,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Pavol, who won the 2016 Alexander Soros Foundation prize for environmental and human rights activism, has challenged the lease on his village land in court. But he and other activists continue to endure police intimidation, legal harassment, and opposition from “a vastly better-funded adversary,” Global Witness said.

“These people say they own the land now, and they do whatever they want,” Pavol said. “Police came to our community at night. People were scared that they might burn down our houses. That’s the reason we raise our voices. Something’s got to be done to save our forest.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.