- Belgian authorities have blocked a shipment of tropical timber from Gabon after a tip-off by Greenpeace.
- Under the EU Timber Regulation, European companies have an obligation to conduct proper due diligence on the source of the timber they import.
- Greenpeace says this due diligence requirement was not met in this case, as the wood was exported by a Chinese logging firm with previous allegations of illegal logging.
On July 8, Greenpeace forest campaigner Philippe Verbelen was conducting routine monitoring at the Belgian port of Antwerp when he noticed a familiar name attached to a timber shipment: Wan Chuan Timber SARL (WCTS), a company that has been exposed and fined for a series of grave offenses in Gabon.
Verbelen alerted customs officials at the port, who moved quickly moved to block the shipment of padoek, a tropical timber. The Belgian government is now investigating the company receiving the shipment, Antwerp-based Compagnie de Bois Anvers, for a possible breach of the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR).
The shipment in question came from Gabon, a country that currently still has 85 percent coverage of incredibly biodiverse rainforest. In May this year, Pierre Moussavou, Gabon’s then-vice president and minister of state for forests and the environment, was fired in connection with a timber scandal.
“[Gabon] is a country with a high level of corruption linked to the forestry sector,” Verbelen said. “European timber companies clearly need to identify companies active in Gabon as a high risk for doing business.”
WCTS, which exported the timber, is a Chinese logging company operating in Gabon. Verbelen recognized its name from an undercover probe by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO based in Washington, D.C. The EIA came across WCTS in 2016 while investigating illegal logging activity in Gabon.
“We were asking who the really bad guys were, who were the people or the companies that were just breaking all the rules with no respect,” said Lisa Handy, the EIA’s director of forest campaigns, “and several times everybody was referring back to WCTS.”
In 2016 and 2017, EIA investigators posed as timber merchants and met with WCTS’s deputy general manager, Chen Wixing. They secretly filmed a series of meetings with Chen and other WCTS employees.
“His business model is essentially structural over-harvesting, tax evasion, money laundering and, covering all that, corruption,” Handy said.
According to Handy, WCTS was extracting between two and three times its legal quota. When the EIA spoke to Chen in 2016, Handy says WCTS was already cutting down forest in areas it was not supposed to have reached until 2030.
In the videos, published by the EIA in May this year, Chen also describes evading tax through transfer pricing and channeling his exports through smaller companies to avoid the attention of the authorities in Gabon.
Following the EIA’s exposé, WCTS is now under investigation in Gabon.
As part of its commitment to reduce illegal logging, the European Union introduced the EUTR in 2013, making it an offense to import illegally logged timber into the bloc. A key part of the regulation is a requirement that European companies importing timber must conduct thorough due diligence on their timber sources.
Guidance documents produced by the European Commission in 2016 to assist timber traders in interpreting the EUTR state, “In cases where the risk of corruption is not negligible, even official documents issued by authorities cannot be considered reliable.” It is on this basis that Greenpeace believes Compagnie de Bois Anvers failed to conduct due diligence.
In a statement responding to inquiries from Mongabay, Compagnie du Bois Anvers said, “We were of course shocked to see the set of movies that was released by EIA on 22/5/2019. We have immediately suspended our relationship with WCTS until the outcome of further investigations.”
It declined to comment further until the Belgian investigation is complete.
Allegations of illegal activities by WCTS have been aired publicly since 2017. WCTS was fined by the Gabonese authorities in 2017 following an investigation. It is also the subject of a civil complaint by Conservation and Justice, a Gabonese NGO. Verbelen said he believes the availability of this information means that Compaigne du Bois Anvers had clearly failed in its due diligence obligation.
“There are more than enough indications if you are a timber trader in Belgium that there is a high risk of dealing with illegal timber when you’re buying from this company,” he said. “[Compagnie du Bois Anvers] needs to be investigated and, in our opinion, sanctioned.”
Compagnie du Bois Anvers and Greenpeace are now awaiting the outcome of the Belgian government’s investigation.
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Banner image: Timber exported by Wan Chuan Timber SARL currently blocked at the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Image courtesy of Philippe Verbelen/Greenpeace