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FSC-certified timber importer failed to check legality of shipment from Cameroon

  • Hardwood Dimensions, a timber importer in the U.K., violated the EU Timber Regulation by not properly verifying the legality of a shipment of Cameroonian ayous in January 2017.
  • A judge ordered Hardwood Dimensions to pay 4,000 pounds ($5,576) plus court costs in the case.
  • The case calls into question the effectiveness of Forest Stewardship Council certification, which Hardwood Dimensions has held since 2000.

A British government office has prosecuted a wood importer certified by the Forest Stewardship Council after it was found to have failed to ensure the legality of a shipment of timber from Cameroon.

The Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, is an international organization dedicated to ensuring companies harvest and source timber according to a set of environmental and social standards. On March 2, a judge ruled that Hardwood Dimensions had violated a set of laws known as the EU Timber Regulation that came into force in March 2013. According to a statement, the company didn’t properly verify that a shipment of ayous (Triplochiton scleroxylon), a tropical tree species used to make furniture and guitars, had been legally harvested in Cameroon.

Simon Counsell, the executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said such legal violations by certified companies were “red flags.”

“To me, what that points to is simply that the FSC system isn’t working properly,” Counsell said in an interview.

Cameroon is considered a “high-risk” country for illegal timber, according to conservation NGOs. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Simon Marsden, a director of Hardwood Dimensions, said the violation demonstrated the stringency of the EU’s laws governing timber imports, in a statement from the Timber Trade Federation, an industry organization.

“As a company, we felt we had adequate procedures in place, particularly in this case as we were purchasing FSC Certified material,” Marsden said. “However, this is clearly not the case and we admitted that for this one particular supply line our Due Diligence systems were deficient.”

Hardwood Dimensions has held an FSC chain of custody certificate since 2000, meaning it is required to perform checks “at every stage of processing.”

A company has the “sole responsibility” to verify that its supply chain is legal, said David Hopkins, managing director of the Timber Trade Federation, in the group’s statement.

“FSC alone is no guarantee of having complied with legal process,” Hopkins added.

In an email obtained by Mongabay, an FSC representative said the organization was “closely studying” this case and had reported the incident to an assurance provider called Accreditation Services International.

FSC works with certification companies to ensure that timber buyers comply with FSC standards. But the fact that the certifier didn’t turn up this gap in Hardwood Dimensions’ due diligence raises the question of whether certifiers might have missed other issues in the past, said Rainforest Foundation UK’s Counsell.

“The certifying companies aren’t identifying problems of illegality within the companies that they’re certifying,” he said, “and the FSC isn’t checking that the certifiers are doing their job properly.”

A stream runs through the rainforest in western Cameroon. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The judge ordered Hardwood Dimensions to pay 4,000 pounds ($5,570) plus court costs in a case brought by the U.K.’s Office for Product Safety and Standards, the British agency in charge of EU Timber Regulation enforcement.

The Timber Trade Federation statement said “none of the material imported was from an illegal source,” according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which houses the Office for Product Safety and Standards.

But Counsell said “They must have had good information to know that that timber was at least questionable,” particularly when it was coming from a “high-risk country” for timber like Cameroon.

A court last year fined U.K. furniture importer Lombok 5,000 pounds ($6,970), plus court costs, for a similar violation of failing to do its due diligence on wood furniture brought in from India.

Banner image of a drill in Cameroon by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Accreditation Services International as a partner of FSC and a certifying company. It is neither.

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