- Limited resources for EUTR due diligence need to be allocated strategically to ensure that enforcement has maximum impact. This means that imports from countries with relatively low production volumes like Ivory Coast may be subject to less stringent due diligence compared to imports from high-volume countries.
- However, a simple low-cost document-based evaluation in Ivory Coast reveals several risk factors, some of which could have been easily detected through cursory risk assessment.
- We recommend that EUTR actors work more closely with independent forestry sector monitors (IFMs) to develop more cost-effective techniques to help ensure broad geographic coverage of stringent due diligence.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), which came into force in 2013, prohibits operators from placing illegally harvested timber on EU markets. EUTR implementation relies on a due diligence process requiring operators to assess risk of illegal timber in the supply chain and take action to mitigate identified risks. The process relies on information about the timber product, country of harvest, and suppliers.
The reliability of the information is key: EUTR implementation can only be as good as the information required for effective risk assessment and mitigation. But since the EU imports timber from many countries plagued by forest governance challenges, obtaining reliable information is no easy task. Fortunately, independent forest monitors (IFM), which are often local civil society organizations, can be an excellent source of information for risk assessment and mitigation.
However, application of IFM data to EUTR due diligence has been inconsistent, due to two main reasons.
The first challenge is the lack of EUTR-applicable data published by IFMs. Many IFMs tend to support allegations of illegal activities with ‘field’ evidence, such as photos of unmarked tree stumps or testimonial from local community members. Unfortunately, these types of observations are not readily applied to EUTR due diligence because risk is assessed primarily by evaluating legality documents. There is also the perception among some EUTR actors that IFM data is not applicable because information from civil society is inherently unreliable.
The second reason is complexity. Many IFM reports contain a wealth of EUTR applicable data, but navigating them can be challenging. This is particularly true when operators conceal illicit activities through complex plots involving a web of actors and documents. Some reports are over 50 pages long and include multiple scanned documents from different governance agencies, complex analyses of legal gaps and loopholes, tables, figures, and feedback from the private sector and government to support an observation of illicit activity. It’s no wonder that IFM reports, particularly those of high technical quality, are often difficult for EUTR actors to interpret and apply to due diligence.
Thankfully, the Open Timber Portal (OTP) is addressing the challenge of complexity by presenting and interpreting IFM data in a user-friendly database. However, more efforts are needed to ensure that IFMs are collecting more EUTR-applicable data. Resource Extraction Monitoring (REM) is addressing this challenge by helping IFMs implement more document-based investigations. By evaluating the validity of the same legality documents that EUTR actors use for risk assessment and mitigation, EUTR actors will be more likely to apply investigation results, at least in theory. The challenge is obtaining the documents. As most IFMs are non-mandated, meaning they operate without formal collaboration with the government, it is generally assumed that they cannot access most legality documents.
We tested this assumption in Ivory Coast in partnership with Initiatives pour le Développement Communautaire et la Conservation de la Forêt (IDEF), an Ivorian civil society organization specializing in independent monitoring of rural forests (classified forests are monitored by the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, a government-mandated IFM).
The odds were against us: IDEF had no official collaboration with the Ivorian government, and there were no indications that the government would share unpublished legality documents. What we found was surprising – the government shared many documents and it was relatively easy to identify risk factors for a large portion of Ivorian timber exports.
Three key observations from the investigation
We evaluated six different legality documents regarding 10 major timber producers and 73 périmètres d’exploitation forestière (PEF), which is the forestry management unit for rural forests. These PEFs represented about 30% of both the total area and production volumes authorized in 2018 in rural forests according to government data (yellow polygons on the map).
We received 170 of 316 documents requested from the Forest Administration, for an obtainment rate of about 54%. The full report provides company-specific observations, but we are only going to highlight three key observations to illustrate risks associated with Ivorian timber harvested from rural forests.
Observation 1: Systemic lack of simplified management plans as required by law. The simplified management plan defines harvesting objectives and plans. It is vital for long-term management of the forest. However, the government confirmed a systemic lack of simplified management plans for forestry exploitation units in rural areas (PEFs). While PEFs are being phased out, they remain the norm and account for an estimated 90% of commercial timber production in Ivory Coast. In short, the lack of simplified management plans raises serious concerns about the legality and sustainability for most of the timber exported from Ivory Coast.
Observation 2: Lack of PEF advisory committee approvals. The advisory committee is composed of members from different government agencies and a representative of the timber industry. Members assess a technical report that includes inventories, land use maps, and community consultation documents to decide if a PEF should be commercially exploited. According to law, approval from the advisory commitment is required prior to granting exploitation permits. However, there are indications that the cutting permits obtained by the 10 companies we investigated were granted without approval from PEF advisory committees.
Observation 3: Lack of access to the specifications (cahier des charges) may hinder effective control. The cahier des charges, required by law for all commercial timber exploitation, defines various requirements and procedures regarding exploitation, reforestation, and local community rights. The government provided copies of two cahiers des charges but was unable to provide more, citing document management challenges. The cahier des charges is an important document for law enforcement: agents need it to crosscheck specific requirements with field operations. Field visits confirm that agents in at least two regional offices did not have access to the cahier des charges relevant to ongoing logging operations within their jurisdiction.
In conclusion, a relatively simple and low-cost investigation revealed risk factors relevant to roughly 40% of timber production in rural forests (up to 90% of total commercial timber production, if you consider the lack of management plans for PEFs nationwide). But it’s not all bad news. A 54% obtainment rate for legality documents is far higher than we anticipated, and the government invested considerable time in providing valuable feedback to three investigation reports. These are positive signs for future collaboration between government and civil society in Ivory Coast.
Will these observations be applied to EUTR due diligence?
At the onset of the project we assumed that if IFM data is more EUTR-applicable (e.g. focused on legality documents), it will be applied to due diligence. But this may be a false assumption due to EUTR enforcement priority-setting procedures. To help ensure that our investigation would produce EUTR applicable data, we contacted 30 EUTR actors from 10 EU member states known to import timber from Ivory Coast to inquire about specific information needs. Only eight responded with requests for clarity on legal requirements, but none requested data on alleged illegal activities. The latter may be because EUTR actors prefer to avoid potential private sector backlash for collaborating with IFMs. But it could also be the simple fact that Ivorian timber isn’t a priority due to relatively low volumes, as indicated by multiple EUTR actors we contacted.
As limited EUTR enforcement resources should be allocated to maximize impact, it makes sense to prioritize due diligence on high-volume imports from high-risk countries. But what exactly is ‘high volume’? According to FAOSTAT (the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database), the EU imported over $68.6 million-worth of timber from Ivory Coast in 2017, or 46% of the total imports from West Africa in terms of export value, making it by far the leading timber supplier from the region. While this is dwarfed by imports from Brazil or the US, it is still a considerable amount of timber. In fact, Ivory Coast was the 14th-largest supplier of timber to the EU worldwide (excluding European countries) in terms of export value the same year. And Germany, where multiple EUTR actors stated Ivorian timber volumes were too low to be a priority for stringent risk assessment, imported about $6 million-worth of forest products from Ivory Coast in 2017.
Another indicator that Ivorian timber is a low priority is the fact that Ivory Coast has long been considered a high-risk timber-producing country, as reported by NepCon and Forest Trends. But we could not find any publicly available information on fines, seizures, or other EUTR enforcement actions related to Ivorian timber. Indeed, Ivorian timber appears to be readily available at major EU retailers. For example, a quick Google search reveals that Leroy Merlin sells Badi and Tali timber, which is likely from Ivory Coast, due to country specific species names.
In this globalized world, demand-side policies like the EUTR are vital tools in the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change. Not only do we need more policies for a wider range of deforestation-risk commodities, we also need to explore innovative approaches to ensure enforcement. This includes developing tools like the OTP to improve information sharing between demand and supply-side stakeholders.
While improved access to more EUTR-applicable data will make enforcement more cost-effective, it is ultimately up to EU member states to act. We recommend that EUTR actors request, at minimum, simplified management plans, cahier des charges, and proof of advisory committee approvals from all suppliers of Ivorian timber harvested in rural forests (PEFs). We also recommend that EUTR actors contact IFMs directly to request information to strengthen their risk assessment and mitigation. These actions will strengthen due diligence and ultimately help kickstart a much-needed process to improve forest governance in Ivory Coast.
Brad Mulley is a specialist in independent forest monitoring (IFM) with Resource Extraction Monitoring (REM), a British NGO. He led the government mandated IFM project in Republic of Congo for over 3 years and currently supports development of the Open Timber Portal in collaboration with the World Resources Institute.