Illegal Timber Harvesting

Illegal Timber Harvesting
Fast on the heels of the US Lacey Act and Europe’s EUTR legislation prohibiting the import of illegally harvested timber, this week Australia officially approved it’s own similar law.

Australia’s parliament on Monday passed legislation to ban the import and trade of illegally logged timber, joining the United States and European Union in clamping down on a global trade in stolen timber that Interpol says is worth about $30 billion a year, said Reuters Monday. The Australian laws, five years in the making, impose fines, jail, and forfeiture of goods, and oblige importers to carry out mandatory due diligence on timber and timber products sourced from overseas.

The Australian government says about 10 per cent of the more than AUD$4 billion (US$4.12 billion) of timber imported annually is illegal, and that illegal logging globally causes environmental and social damage estimated at AUD$60 billion a year.

Most illegal logging occurs in tropical forests, especially in countries with lax law enforcement, corruption, poor forest management, and underfunded conservation programs. A report published by Interpol last year suggested that large amounts of illegal timber are “laundered” through legitimate forestry enterprises, including the plantation sector.

The Australian laws impose a maximum penalty of five years jail time and a fine of AUD$275,000 for a company, or AUD$55,000 for an individual, if they knowingly, recklessly, import or process illegally logged timber products.

New Legislation in EU, US, Australia

Amendments to the US Lacey Act ban trade in illegally sourced timber, wood and paper products within the United States and internationally. Failure to comply means fines, jail time and forfeiture of goods.

In Europe, the EUTR — which came into effect in March — aims to stop illegally logged timber being sold in the EU, by regulating the list of timber and timber products, whether harvested in the EU or beyond, sold within Europe. Government buying of timber makes up 19 per cent of the EU’s annual GDP,  which amounted to €2,100 billion in 2009.

An investigative project by students from UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism, released at the beginning of October, uncovered the criminal, environmental, and social consequences of the illegal timber trade, one of the largest black markets in the world. Ten graduate students in UBC’s International Reporting Program spent a year travelling to Indonesia, Cameroon, and Russia to investigate stories of communities affected by illegal logging and bring awareness to North American consumers who are buying furniture, paper, and building materials made from this wood.

In Russia’s Far East, students discovered that massive amounts of illegally logged Russian hardwood are shipped to China, where the wood is turned into inexpensive furniture and other items for export to western consumers. In Indonesia, a student team challenged a representative of one of the world’s biggest paper companies on its damaging environmental history. In Cameroon, students encountered a scheme to deprive indigenous people of their livelihoods in their community forest.

Almost US$40 million worth of timber was seized by Interpol’s illegal logging crackdown, Operation Lead, in 2013, and on-going seizures are revealing the true scale of the problem. When Operation Lead was first undertaken, US$8 million worth of timber was seized.

This year, in mid-February, Interpol arrested nearly 200 people and seized 2,000 truckloads of wood in one of the biggest raids ever on suspected illegal timber operations in Latin America. The raid, Interpol’s first international operation against large-scale illegal logging, was carried out in 12 Latin American countries alongside national agencies from September to late November 2012. About 50,000 cubic metres of wood was seized, with an estimated value of about US$8m (£5.25 million), according to details released by Interpol.

While these new regulations were always expected to severely limit, if not eliminate, the import of illegally harvested timber in the developed world, there is concern among politicians and stakeholders that emerging markets might not be so concerned with such niceties.

Almost half the timber Chinese companies exported from Mozambique last year was not supposed to leave the southeast African country, nor even the forest in some cases, according to Reuters Monday. Now both countries are stepping up efforts to crack down on the illegal logging that costs Mozambique millions of dollars a year and put its forests at risk.

In July, Mozambican authorities caught Chinese company Mozambique First International Development trying to export 20 containers of illegally harvested wood. The company’s license to harvest its forest concessions has been suspended for a year.

Renewed cooperation between Mozambique and China’s forestry departments comes in the wake of several investigations by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and others, revealing ongoing illegal activities by Chinese timber corporations. In response, efforts to tackle graft in the forestry sector are being ramped up. Mozambique’s anti-corruption body began an investigation of several government officials, and representatives from China’s State Forestry Administration visited Mozambique’s Directorate of Lands and Forests in May, said Reuters.

Most recently, the two countries began crafting a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation in the forest sector, which should be completed by the end of the year. The upcoming MoU could address not only illegal logging, but also aspects like community forest management, and preparation for the United Nations’ REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme. But experts remain cautious, as similar MoUs have been weak.