EU should stop illegal logging by stepping up enforcement of Timber Regulation

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

An Indonesian Navy member safeguards some of the 17,160,75 meter cubic of 'Merbau' logs on Bravery Falcon Freighter at Jakarta on 5 January 2004. The Indonesian Navy caught The Bravery Falcon Freighter at Papua bringing illegal logs to Vietnam. [EPA/BAGUS INDAHONO]

The EU Timber Regulation is one of the key ways the EU can help stop illegal logging and deforestation. Now, it is the responsibility of the EU and timber companies to make sure it really works, writes Diane de Rouvre.

Diane de Rouvre is a lawyer for ClientEarth.

Illegal harvesting and trading of timber has a devastating impact on forests ecosystems and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods.

As one of the world’s largest timber consumers, the EU can play a major role in stopping illegal logging through trade.

This weekend marked the five-year anniversary of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which aims to prevent illegal timber from entering the EU market and help international efforts to halt deforestation, protect nature and fight climate change.

It requires companies to check the risk of illegally harvested wood in their supply chains and is one of the EU’s major legal tools to defend the world’s forests.

In the past few years, a number of EU countries have stepped up their enforcement of the law.

In 2016, a Swedish Court ruled that Almtra Nordic was breaching the EUTR for importing tropical wood from Myanmar without properly assessing the risk that the timber had been logged illegally.

The case set an important precedent that companies are required to fully trace their supply chains, right back to where the timber has been harvested, under the EU Timber Regulation.

It sparked a wave of enforcement cases across Europe, with countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK fining companies that were not complying with the law.

As consumers, we hope the products we buy are made legally. When this relates to wooden flooring, furniture, or materials like plywood and paper, the EUTR rules imposed on companies help to reduce the risk of them being illegal.

But national governments need to do more to make the EU Timber Regulation as effective as possible.

The Commission has taken legal action against an EU country that was failing to enforce the illegal logging law properly.

In 2017, it launched a case against Belgium for not carrying out enough checks on companies operating on the Belgian market. This is the first case of its kind and should act as a warning to other countries that are shirking their legal duty to stop illegal timber being sold in the EU.

Belgium now has to step up its enforcement or the case risks going to the Court of Justice, where it could face major fines.

Back in 2016, the EU carried out an evaluation of the EUTR. While it was too early to say what concrete impacts it has had, the review found that businesses have adopted more responsible sourcing policies and that there is support from EU industry for the law to be implemented properly across the whole EU.

The regulation has also had an impact on timber-producing countries.

After the Swedish Court ruled that the importer of tropical timber from Myanmar did not do a proper risk assessment, authorities in the country pledged to improve ways that timber can be traced from the point of harvest to export and also to step up efforts to comply with international timber legality standards.

When the EUTR bites, it can really help strengthen forest governance in timber-producing countries.

But some major challenges still exist.

Only a small number of EU countries have shown some commitment to enforcing the EUTR. Others are lagging behind, especially in crucial import countries of tropical timber like Belgium, or those in the south of Europe.

Very little information about enforcement of the EUTR by member states is made available to the public. More information is essential to show the EUTR’s progress – or lack of progress – and to keep the system credible, both within the EU but in timber producing countries too.    

Strong enforcement of the regulation will motivate companies to act. We’ve seen a handful of countries impose fines, but even these fines are generally well below the maximum amount national governments can hand out to companies acting unlawfully.

This matters because countries that are making an effort to enforce the EUTR are being undermined by those that are not – if high-risk products are put on the market without proper checks, they can circulate freely around Europe. This puts companies that do operate under stricter rules at a competitive disadvantage.

Despite its limitations, the EU Timber Regulation is one of the key ways the EU can help stop illegal logging and deforestation. Now, it is the responsibility of all EU countries, the European Commission and timber companies to make sure it really works.  

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