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Review finds EU plan to curb illegal logging has had little success

  • Illegal logging is a big problem in forests around the world, particularly in tropical forests where valuable tropical hardwoods are often targeted. The EU is one of the biggest timber markets in the world.
  • To curb its imports of illegal wood and thereby reduce illegal logging, the EU enacted the EUTR to counter demand through increased traceability of timber imports.
  • But an EC review of the EUTR’s first few years of operation was less than stellar, finding its “overall implementation remains insufficient.”

In 2013, the European Union enacted the EU Timber Regulation law (EUTR) to help stem the tide of illegally sourced timber into EU states. But a recently released report by the European Commission (EC) finds relatively little progress has been made on that front in the last few years.

Illegal logging is a big problem in forests around the world, particularly in tropical forests where valuable tropical hardwoods are often targeted. The impacts of illegal logging aren’t just felt in the forests themselves the timber comes from; between 7 percent and 14 percent of the global load of human-caused CO2 emissions are estimated to come from illicit timber harvesting, according to EC estimates.

Much of this illegally sourced timber is marketed to European countries due to a favorable exchange rate and a big appetite for flooring, furniture, and other wood products. Indeed, the EU is one of the largest consumers of wood products in the world.

Because of its big-buyer status, the EU holds significant sway when it comes to the timber market. Unlike many producer countries that have little capacity to affect change in their forestry sectors – often due to corruption – the EU has the potential to stem the tide of illegally sourced timber through its borders. To this end, the EU defined a policy in 2003 called the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT AP). A subset of the FLEGT AP focused on curtailing the demand side of illegal logging materialized in 2010 as the EUTR, which was put into action in March, 2013.

Illegal sawmill in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

In short, the EUTR lays out traceability requirements across member states when it comes to both timber providers and customers. Failure to comply with these requirements is supposed to result in the enforcement of penalties that vary depending on the country.

However, the EC’s evaluation of the EUTR’s first few years, which was released today, found that many countries are being slow to fully implement the EUTR — and some aren’t even completely onboard, yet.

‘The implementation of the EUTR has been slow in most Member States,” the report states. “While some Member States have progressed in fulfilling the obligations imposed by the EUTR, the overall implementation remains insufficient and there are still four not fully compliant Member States.”

The EC blames this lack of commitment on “insufficient resources” granted to state authorities charged with preparing their countries for EUTR application, as well as a lack of compliance in the private sector.

The report does cite some successes such as awareness-raising among EU consumers, and it maintains that the EUTR does have the potential to achieve its objectives. However, it cautions that “further consistent efforts are needed from both the Member States and the private sector before an effective and efficient application can be achieved.”

The stump of an illegally logged rainforest tree in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

London-based corruption watchdog Global Witness laments the findings of the EC report, specifically calling out what it sees as a lack of enforcement.

“The EU Timber Regulation is a landmark piece of legislation that could make a huge difference in the fight against deforestation,” Colin Robertson, campaigner for Global Witness, said in a press release. “But it will only work if European governments get serious about enforcing it. The law has been in place for three years but we have so far seen no prosecutions and no serious penalties. Meanwhile illegal timber continues to flood the EU market in enormous quantities.”

Global Witness cites data from international timber trade experts that indicate illegally sourced wood and pulp products worth as much as 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) flowed into the EU in 2014. The EU countries responsible for most of this import were the UK, Germany, France, and Italy.

A 2015 Global Witness investigation found that French and German companies were importing timber from logging companies in the Central African Republic.

“We have presented detailed evidence to national authorities across Europe that timber from the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo is very likely illegal, and possibly linked to violence and human rights abuses,” Robertson said. “But so far no steps appear to have been taken to hold companies accountable for breaking the law.

“Laws are only as good as their enforcement, and this one appears to have been widely ignored.”

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