EU lawmakers on watch for illegal timber
Apr 27, 2009: Stricter rules on timber sold in the EU are needed to combat illegal logging - the main cause of deforestation - says a legislative report by Caroline Lucas (Greens/EFA, UK) adopted by the European Parliament. All the operators in the timber supply chain must prove the legality of their timber and illegal timber suppliers must pay penalties that reflect the degree of environmental and economic damage, it added. The report was adopted on 22 April (465 for, 22 against, 187 abstentions). EU rules need to be more effective, as 20% to 40% of global industrial wood production is from illegal sources, stresses the European Parliament, which wants to toughen the proposed legislation to ensure that illegally harvested timber and timber products are removed from the EU market, through a concrete system of traceability and monitoring.
EU lawmakers call for tough watch on illegal timber
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Europe should push for tighter laws to curb the illegal timber trade by making both importers and exporters get licenses to show their wood does not come from endangered rainforests, lawmakers said on Wednesday.
EU countries are an important market for both legally and illegally harvested timber -- the largest importers of plywood and sawnwood from Africa, the second largest from Asia, and a key market for Russia. Much of that wood is suspect.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, wants to make licenses obligatory only for exporters, with other measures to reduce the risk of illegally sourced timber entering EU markets. Green groups, and MEPs, say that doesn't go far enough.
"The Amazon-sized hole in the Commission's proposal is that it does not actually prohibit the import and sale of illegally logged timber," said Green MEP Caroline Lucas, whose legal report was backed by the full European Parliament on Wednesday.
Lucas, calling the Commission's timber proposal "vitally important but distressingly weak," said all market operators should be responsible for trading only legally sourced wood.
That report will go before a June meeting of EU farm ministers in Luxembourg, where the issue will be thrashed out.
Debate on a European timber law began more than five years ago and restrictions are currently limited to the terms of voluntary partnerships the European Union has signed with exporters like Ghana. Very few countries have signed up.
Environmental groups say Europe buys 1.2 billion euros ($1.55 billion) worth of illegally felled timber a year, some 20 percent of its imports, and the trade can lead to more forest degradation, fires and poaching.
The WWF estimated last year that nearly a fifth of the wood imported into the European Union is felled illegally or comes from suspect sources, mostly in Russia, Indonesia and China.
"As a major producer and importer of timber, the EU has a key role to play for preservation of forests worldwide," Anke Schulmeister, WWF Forests Policy Officer, said in a statement.
"It is only fair that companies are requested to install systems proving that the timber they sell is legal, respects the environment and the rights of local people," the statement said.
(Reporting by Jeremy Smith, editing by Tim Pearce)
The EU took a step towards taking action against illegal logging yesterday (22 April) when the European Parliament voted in favour of stricter rules on timber sold within the bloc's markets, including the introduction of sanctions against offenders.
The EU first addressed illegal logging in 2003 when it published the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. The document included provisions to conclude so-called 'Voluntary Partnership Agreements' between the EU and timber-producing countries, and promoted public procurement policies in favour of legally-harvested timber.
The action plan contained only voluntary measures, and did not prove to be enough to halt the entry of illegally-logged timber onto EU markets. Moreover, the EU has so far only concluded one such partnership, with Ghana.
The Commission therefore launched a legislative proposal in October 2008 to reinforce the measures of the FLEGT Action Plan by "minimising the risk of illegally-harvested timber entering the EU".
The Parliament yesterday (22 April) adopted a report authored by Green MEP Caroline Lucas (UK), strengthening the Commission's proposals on timber trade (EurActiv 20/10/08).
According to MEPs, all actors in the timber supply chain must be made responsible for ensuring that illegally-sourced wood does not find its way to the EU market.
The Commission originally proposed a one-off check by the operator which placed timber on the market for the first time. The Parliament, however, wants to make all traders and producers responsible for clearly indicating the source of their products and the supplier of the timber through a traceability system.
Two years after the regulation enters into force, member states would have to ensure that all timber products on the EU market are labelled with this information.
Moreover, the Parliament's move effectively criminalises illegal timber trading, obliging EU member states to impose financial penalties on operators in breach of the law. The co-legislators' amendments to the proposal stipulate that these penalties must represent "at least five times the value of the timber products obtained by committing a serious infringement".
The adopted text also provides for improved monitoring, urging the competent authorities to carry out controls on the supply chain. In case of infringement, these authorities should take "corrective measures", such as "the immediate cessation of commercial activities" and "the seizure of timber and timber products," MEPs say.
The tough stance reflects the extent of the problem. A WWF report last year estimated that almost a fifth of timber coming into the EU market was from illegal sources.
Member states on collision course with Parliament
While the Parliament has made quick progress by producing its first-reading stance on the rules governing the timber trade, the 27 member states are yet to present their views. The Czech Presidency is aiming to have a common position agreed upon by June, which would then be taken further by the Swedes, who assume the EU helm for six months in July.
A member-state source told EurActiv that the reason the negotiations where taking longer in the Council is that they had taken a very different line compared to the Parliament. It said the Council had to tackle technical problems in the draft text, such as how to make the monitoring systems and the organisations charged with overseeing compliance work together.
"The Parliament's approach is more ideological," the source argued, saying that the obligation for all operators to check the origin of their timber would place a heavy burden on the industry. It added that there was a need to clarify whether the EU even had the competence to criminalise the use of timber from illegal sources, or whether this in fact fell under the jurisdiction of individual member states.
A Swedish government official said that while member states had different interests, as some are clearly importers of wood products and some are producers, the negotiating difficulties should not be exaggerated.
"It is common that a completely new regulation in an area that has not been regulated before takes time. I would be more worried if we had a clear position after just four months," she said.
A source from a member state with a large forestry sector said the problem for wood-producing EU nations is often that they already have well-functioning legislation and monitoring systems to combat illegal logging in their own countries. They are now worried that these might not be compatible with the European framework, it said.
Countries which import a lot of timber from third countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, on the other hand, face different problems. Illegal logging is mainly associated with tropical wood, while EU countries in general have relatively well-regulated timber markets.
However, some member states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, are having problems enforcing legislation to combat criminal activity in the sector.
Sweden is hoping to finalise the new timber legislation during its EU presidency, but has acknowledged that there might be delays here, because administrative processes will need to be clarified once the new Parliament is in place following June's elections.
EU lagging behind US
The EU, traditionally a front-runner in environmental legislation, is now lagging behind the United States in combating illegal logging. Last year, the US extended its oldest wildlife protection law - the Lacey Act enacted in 1900 - to cover illegal logging. The law now makes it possible to prosecute any actor dealing with illegal timber.
The EU is discussing rules on timber trade under the wider umbrella of deforestation and forest degradation, an area where it is actively promoting international action. The Parliament is expected to adopt a resolution tomorrow (24 April), which urges EU leaders to make sure that the new UNFCCC climate agreement due to be agreed in Copenhagen in December tackles deforestation (EurActiv 16/02/09).
However, green groups have pointed out that there is a discrepancy between the EU's efforts to address deforestation and its slow action on illegal timber.
"The EU cannot drag its feet on timber laws while claiming that it is critical to address deforestation and forest degradation," Sébastien Risso, EU forest policy director at Greenpeace, told EurActiv.
He added that the EU's credibility would be on the line should it fail to speed up the adoption of legislation to combat illegal logging and regulate timber markets.
Green MEP Caroline Lucas (UK) stressed that the EU had been preaching against illegal logging for many years, while simultaneously providing one of the world's biggest markets for illegally-sourced timber and timber products.
She said the extent of the problem was vast, with 20-40% of EU imports coming from illegal sources. "That depresses timber prices, it strips natural resources and tax revenue, and it increases the poverty of forest-dependent peoples".
"The longer-term effects are even more serious," Lucas continued, "since deforestation, of which illegal logging is a major driver, accounts for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions".
Environmental NGO Greenpeace congratulated the Parliament for improving the Commission's draft timber law with obligations on companies to ensure the legality of their wood products and by creating an EU framework of sanctions.
"Today's vote has taken us a step closer to excluding illegal timber from the EU market, making companies accountable for the products they sell, and helping reduce the EU's environmental and social footprint on the world's forests," said Sebastien Risso, Greenpeace EU's forest policy director.
The Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) welcomed the Parliament's commitment to addressing illegal logging, but pointed out that the European pulp and paper industry was already actively ensuring the legality of the wood used in Europe.
"The figures quoted by [MEP] Caroline Lucas today concerning the volume of illegal wood entering the EU seem high," said Bernard de Galembert, CEPI's forest director. "We are convinced that estimating the quantity of illegal timber used by the EU is extremely difficult, but believe that the voluntary measures taken by the industry will lead inevitably to a significant decrease," he added.
- June: Czech Presidency to present the Council's common position.
- European Parliament (press release): MEPs adopt rules to keep illegal timber off the EU market (22 April 2009) [FR] [DE]
- European Parliament: Texts adopted, Wednesday 22 April 2009, Strasbourg (22 April 2009) [FR] [DE]
- European Commission: The illegal logging of timber website
- European Commission (press release): Environment: Commission unveils package to tackle illegal logging and deforestation (17 October 2008) [FR] [DE]
- European Commission (memo): Questions and Answers on the Proposed Regulation laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the EU market (17 October 2008)
- Greens/EFA (press release): Illegal timber trade: EU Parliament backs Green report to axe illegal deforestation and timber trade (22 April 2009)
- Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) (press release): European Paper Industry Already Tackling Illegal logging (23 April 2009)
- Greenpeace (press release): European Parliament plenary vote on EU timber law (22 April 2009)
- WWF: Illegal wood for the European market report (July 2008