Poor laws to fight illegal logging threaten good governance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The first licenses to trade timber in the EU under Voluntary Partnership Agreements should be issued later this year but a lack of resources and financial backing for enforcing the EU Timber Regulation could make the whole process dysfunctional, warns Eoin Brady.

Eoin Brady is the forests Lawyer for ClientEarth

‘Laws without enforcement are just good advice’.  Abraham Lincoln’s words come to mind this month, a year after the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) came into force.  Despite having had over three years to begin implementation, eight EU countries still have no national laws enforcing this major regulation on illegal logging. Only a handful of member states are applying the law; this is a threat to global forest governance and EU rule of law.

The EUTR is a key EU tool to deny market access for illegally logged timber. As such, it is crucial in the struggle to protect the planet’s remaining forests. If the law works as intended, its effects could be felt all over the world. Illegal logging is a significant contributor to the deforestation and forest degradation threatening communities who rely on forests. It also worsens climate change. Furthermore, illegal logging often contributes to pervasive corruption and tax-evasion, affecting some of the poorest people in the world. The success of the EUTR is inextricably linked to the success of global efforts to fight deforestation and achieve good global forest governance.

The EUTR is a ground-breaking legal tool. Companies placing timber and timber products on the EU market must ensure their products are legally sourced, and member states must to put in place the legal and administrative structures to monitor these companies and impose sanctions when necessary.

From October 2010 when the law was enacted until its entry into force in March 2013, each member state had sufficient time to put in place the necessary legal and administrative infrastructure to ensure an effective EUTR. However, one year after it entered into force, our analysis shows more than 20 countries are not applying the law, and are therefore in breach of their legal obligations under EU membership agreements. 

While countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK are to be congratulated on their efforts to comply, the current level of systemic non-compliance with the law is damaging not only to efforts to protect our forests, but to the rule of law generally. In short, the EU should not enact laws, unless it is prepared to help member states enforce them and take action against those which don’t. 

Unfortunately, the Commission’s EUTR unit is under-staffed and under-resourced, demonstrating the relative low priority given to the issue. Where the rule of law is being undermined it falls to the Commission to take remedial action. Such action is all the more urgent for a law like the EUTR, where pervasive non-compliance risks distorting the vitally important EU market in timber and timber products.  The Commission should allocate sufficient staff and resources to the unit responsible for overseeing the EUTR and send an official warning to every country not implementing the law that it will initiate legal proceedings unless that country starts to comply.

A weak timber regulation has implications far bigger than itself. Forest governance agreements are currently being negotiated in countries like Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One facet of these agreements is licences to trade timber in the EU, the first of which should be issued later this year. Timber licensed under these agreements will be automatically considered legal under the EUTR and gain unrestricted access to the EU market. A well implemented and enforced EUTR will be the necessary incentive for timber producing countries to put in place the legal and administrative architecture to support such licences.   

The EU has spent a considerable amount of money supporting its trade partners to put in place the legal and administrative structures needed for these trade licences. It would be a shame if the relative lack of resources and financial backing of the EUTR led to a dysfunctional license process, and thus risk EU finances failing to achieve value for money. 

Passing the EUTR was a significant achievement. It is a potentially far-reaching law which seeks to ensure legality in the supply chains of one of the most commonly traded commodities in the EU. This is not an easy task. However, the difficulty requires an appropriate level of effort from the EU. The Commission must step up to the plate and take the requisite actions to ensure EUTR does what it was designed to do. 

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