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Illegal wood gets the chop from Europe – but world forests not safe yet


We’re really excited about a landmark piece of environmental law taking effect this Sunday. For the first time ever there will be a law across all 27 EU member countries banning the import, sale or commercial use of illegally sourced timber and wood products.

Amazon forest from the airThis is what we want to protect – the world’s most pristine forests. © Greg Armfield / WWF-UK

It’s great news, having spent years campaigning and lobbying for this, and a big step forward for protecting the world’s precious tropical forests – and the people and wildlife that depend on them. But we know there’s a lot still to do.

The new EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), being put into force by the UK government from 3 March, is intended to make companies accountable for the timber and wood products they buy and use.

Anyone involved in importing, manufacturing or selling timber-derived goods will now be legally obliged to show they’ve carefully checked their sources – what’s known as due diligence. UK authorities can now confiscate illegal timber and prosecute importers who haven’t properly assessed the risks of it being illegal.

At the moment the UK is estimated to be one of the top three importers of illegal timber and wood products in the EU.

Orang-utan in the treetopsIsolation is bad for each population of orang-utans. Corridors between each area of forest help them travel – and meet other groups. © Alain Compost / WWF-Canon

Timber could be illegal if it has contravened one or more laws in the country of origin – that could mean it was logged without a licence, or in a protected area, or stolen from another property, or traded without paying taxes or charges.

Illegally logged wood undermines economies in some of the world’s poorest countries, as well as threatening precious rainforests and rare animals, including the orang-utan and gorilla in Indonesia and the Congo Basin. Not to mention the significant contribution that deforestation makes to carbon emissions and climate change.

Of course the new EU legislation isn’t the end of the story – it needs to be implemented and adopted effectively. We’re optimistic, but we know it won’t be simple.

There’s been a mad scramble by all EU countries to get the regulation in place for the 3 March deadline. The UK and Denmark are ready but many others aren’t. The sanctions and penalties vary too, from criminal prosecution to fines.

The worry is that the legislation may only be as good as the weakest link in the chain – there’s the risk that illegal timber might still be imported into the EU through the country with the weakest controls and then distributed from there.

There are also some worrying anomalies when it comes to the products actually covered by the new law.

Our own research shows that just 47 of the 150 subheadings of timber-based products are within the scope of the EUTR.

Members of our Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) – the WWF-led partnership of 300+ companies, communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs (many of whom have been regulating their own timber supplies for years) – have told us of their concerns.

Some of the omissions in the law seem like obvious mistakes. For instance, wooden tables are covered by the regulation but wooden chairs aren’t. Wooden tools, kitchenware and books published outside the EU aren’t included either.

Felled FSC treesSustainably harvested FSC-certified timber. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

There were actually only meant to be two officially agreed exemptions – recycled/recovered fibre and packaging that carries another product. But a couple of last-minute concessions – pretty significant ones – were also wrung by the relevant industries, namely printed material and musical instruments.

We’ll keep pushing for all products to be covered by the regulations, though it seems some may take longer than others.

We sincerely hope the new EUTR legislation, and other similar measures already up and running in the US and Australia, will go at least some way to protecting the world’s remaining pristine forests.

A stack of FSC sourced woodThe FSC mark is used when the tree is harvested, processed and eventually sold. © Benjamin Ealovega / WWF-UK

We’re pleased to say that some of the key timber-producing countries in the tropics are taking action themselves to ensure that their timber production is legal. But we desperately need to get countries like China, India, Brazil and Japan to put better forest and timber management controls in place soon too. Otherwise there’s the risk that the EU manufacturers who have to comply with the new laws will feel they’re being discriminated against.

In the meantime, your best assurance is still to look for the FSC symbol on wood or paper-based products – this certification from the Forest Stewardship Council tells you that the wood in a product is not only legal, but it’s produced to the highest available environmental and social standards.

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