Parliament vote seals ban on illegal timber


The European Parliament yesterday (7 July) backed a compromise to close EU markets to illegal timber.

MEPs voted to approve a political inter-institutional agreement on a new regulation that sets obligations on operators that place timber or related products on the EU market.

The new legislation issues a ban on illegally-harvested timber. Covering the whole timber supply chain from logging sites to European consumers, the law aims to guarantee legally-sourced products access to EU markets while halting deforestation in third countries.

"EU legislation to ban the sale of illegally-sourced timber represents a major international breakthrough, from the forests around the world that are ravaged by illegal logging to the EU market where timber and wood products are sold," said MEP Satu Hassi (Finland, Greens/EFA), who represented the Parliament in the final negotiations.

Currently around a fifth of all timber and related products, like furniture, is suspected to come from illegal sources.

When the legislation enters into force in late 2012, the operator who first places timber or a timber product on the EU market will have to trace its origins or face sanctions. All subsequent sellers will then have to declare who they bought the timber from and who they sold it to in order to ensure that the legality of the wood can be traced at any point in the supply chain.

However, member states have the right to decide whether to impose criminal-law penalties and fines on offenders. The regulation only recommends that consideration should be given to the environmental damage caused, the value of the timber and lost tax revenue.

Member states will still have to give their formal assent to the legislation, which they are expected to do after the summer holidays.

EU policymakers said the European Parliament's approval signalled an EU solution to a global problem as the bloc currently provides one of the biggest markets for illegal timber.

European Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said the Parliament vote brought the EU closer to preventing the sale of illegal timber, as illegal logging "often causes serious environmental damage and undermines the efforts of those who are trying to manage forests responsibly".

"The impacts of illegal logging go beyond environmental protection, with potentially negative effects on the rule of law and the livelihoods of local people who depend on forests for many products and services," he said. 

He added that the EU decision will send a signal to the world that the Europe "will no longer serve as a market for illegally harvested timber".

The Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D) stressed that the ban will be for the good of the environment, human rights, consumer protection and the functioning of the internal market alike.

"This is the first EU legislation directly related to forests. It is part of a new, common approach to forest policy," said MEP Kriton Arsenis (Greece, S&D).

He said the regulation would help protect legitimate businesses from unfair competition: "Illegally logged timber results in wild price fluctuations, undermining fair competition and consumer protection."

Environmentalists regretted that member states had vetoed minimum sanctions for operators who fail to abide by the rules.

Greenpeace argued that while the law is a step towards fair competition, fines proportional to environmental and economic damage need to be vigilantly applied to offenders to make sure that companies verify wood products thought to be illegal and trace timber back to the country of harvest.

"More needs to be done to tackle the EU's destructive impact on the world's forests. Agriculture is the major cause of deforestation. The gold rush into biofuels threatens to exacerbate this. Without more strong measures to tackle these issues, such as a robust financing mechanism to support forest protection, rainforests will soon be just a memory," said Sébastien Risso, Greenpeace EU forest policy director.

Friends of the Earth Europe said the agreement was an important first step towards a level playing field in the international timber market.

"This law, if properly enforced, will have a huge positive impact on the world's forests and their
inhabitants. It will also mean that developing countries will finally start benefiting from the revenues that, until now, have disappeared due to illegal trade," said Geert Ritsema of FOE.

But the NGO regretted that no minimum penalties had been defined, warning that companies could move to countries with low penalties unless the regulation is carefully implemented.

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 voluntary measures, however, did not hinder the entry of illegally-logged timber onto EU markets. The European Commission therefore proposed a new regulation in October 2008 to impose obligations on operators who place timber or timber products on EU markets to ensure the wood originates from legal practices.

The EU institutions reached a compromise agreement on the legislation in June 2010 (EURACTIV 17/06/10).

  • Autumn: Member states to rubber-stamp regulation.


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