Illegal timber trade set for the chop

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Illegal logging is big business. Often, forests are cleared not for their timber supply but to make way for agricultural land. [Shutterstock]

The first batch of timber considered legal under Europe’s most innovative ever anti-illegal logging policy arrived in the UK this week as the fight against the illegal trade in wood gathers momentum, writes Saskia Ozinga.

Saskia Ozinga is coordinator of the Fern campaign.

The timber’s seven week voyage across around 20,000 kilometres of ocean – from the heat and humidity of Tanjung Priok Port in North Jakarta, Indonesia, to the cold and gloom of Tilbury docks in England – was the culmination of a much longer, more tortuous journey.

This one began in 2003 when the European Union launched the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action plan, a series of measures to tackle the root causes of illegal logging.

Behind this unwieldy acronym, the measures included ground-breaking trade agreements between timber producing countries and the EU. Uniquely, these agreements are aimed at tackling the universal causes of both legal and illegal forest destruction: corruption, power imbalances and a lack of clarity over land tenure rights, chief among them.

In simple terms, this is done by establishing legal frameworks for forests to be managed in line with social and environmental laws, and ensuring that the people whose lives depend on the forests have a say in how they are run.

That Indonesia – where illegal deforestation was once endemic – was the first country in the world to be awarded a FLEGT license, guaranteeing that timber has been harvested, processed and exported legally, is a testament to the commitment of many, including members of Indonesia’s determined civil society, international NGOs, such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) who supported them, and the politicians who recognised the situation’s gravity and had the will to act.

Among them were members of the UK government, which in 2002 signed a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia, laying some of the groundwork for the latter’s subsequent agreement with the EU under FLEGT.

The approval of the first FLEGT-licensed timber in the world, along with recent landmark court cases in Sweden and the Netherlands to crack down on companies importing illegally sourced timber, as well as the positive findings of the independent review into FLEGT in May, mean that 2016 was a year of progress in Europe’s fight against forest destruction.

Yet rather than nearing the end of the road, we are approaching a new beginning in this battle.

First, for Indonesia specifically, it is clear that while illegal logging has fallen dramatically in recent years and transparency in the country’s forest sector has risen, there are still thorny, unresolved issues.

These include recognition of community land rights, and the question of how effectively the timber trade agreement with the EU will be implemented. Another key question is whether local communities and NGOs will get the necessary support to monitor the agreement with the EU.

Meanwhile the 14 other countries at various stages of negotiating or implementing timber agreements with the EU under FLEGT, face similar, and in some cases even more daunting challenges.

Second, while the EU has invested much time and capital to help stamp out the scourge of illegal timber, this is not the chief danger to the world’s forests.

Today, forests are being destroyed less for their wood and more to make way for agriculture.

The apparently insatiable appetite for agriculture commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef, is currently the most serious threat to the world’s remaining tropical forests, and is estimated to drive around 80% of deforestation globally.

The challenge in 2017 therefore is for the EU to adopt an action plan on deforestation that uses the innovations of FLEGT to tackle the damage caused by agricultural commodities.

Such a plan could pave the way for legislation addressing the large imports of destructive palm oil, soya and cacao, which is often illegally sourced and grown in violation of communities’ customary tenure rights.

The FLEGT programme began with the Indonesian and UK governments hammering out a progressive trade deal on timber. The Indonesian government is apparently now ready to initiate something similar on palm oil. It is up to us to take up the challenge – and tackle the clearest present danger to the world’s forests.