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Panorama reaction: Cut it out! Stop illegal timber reaching EU before forests collapse


Thursday night’s Panorama documentary on BBC – ‘Jungle Outlaws: The Chainsaw Trail’ – set out to test the promise that the timber we buy in the UK is legally sourced.

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

There are many challenging conditions in forest producer countries to be overcome to make sure that forest communities and habitats do not collapse because of relentless exploitation of valuable resources. But the European Timber Regulation, which came into effect this March, obliges companies to undertake checks to establish legality, and effectively reduce the risk of allowing illegal timber to make its way through the hands of suppliers in the chain to the end consumer.

Arguably companies in Europe, and the governments and departments of European member states, have the resources to effectively play their part in cutting out the trade in illegal timber, which is worth billions of dollars in what become lost revenues every year.

As John Sauven from Greenpeace highlighted on Panorama, it’s no good if one European country enforces the timber regulation and another doesn’t.

Much of the UK’s timber comes in via other member states first – so as in the case followed in Panorama, if the French do not have systems to tackle the illegal trade and enforce the law, the UK is potentially going to be a recipient of illegal timber. But as UK businesses are further down the chain in these cases, they carry a lesser obligation under the law to establish legality.

Current estimates are that only five European member states are in a position to enforce the timber regulation, of which the UK is one. Yet effective analysis of trade needs to be done by all of them, and preferably together, to identify the routes for illegal timber coming into the market and progressively close them down.

Photo of a sun sets over FSC certified logs in CameroonSustainable harvesting, such as these being stored by a logging company in Cameroon, can bring sustainable benefits to the local economy and people. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

I’d be very surprised if there’s a timber trader proper in the UK who’s unfamiliar with the potential risks of sourcing tropical timber from countries like the Republic of Congo, due to their history of illegal logging. The story of stopping this destructive trade has been going on for decades – and many businesses are aware of the true picture of what happens in the forest. 

And we shouldn’t  focus on legality alone, as the documentary pointed out. Legality is no guarantee of sustainability. Our best guarantee to ensure good forest management right now is to buy wood products carrying an FSC logo. To do this, businesses in the UK must actively secure these sources as their supply. This sends the message that exploitation and illegality is not acceptable, and better forest management practices will be expected AND supported.

It’s not good enough that the French processor visited in Panorama (or any other business in a similar situation with respect to the law) can effectively say  “I am not the one with direct obligation to make sure it is legal.. so leave my business alone”.

Why is that not good enough? Because more than one billion of the world’s poorest people – like those shown by Raphael Rowe, depend to some extent on forest resources for their survival. Their poverty is rarely the result of limited resources – it often derives from a combination of bad forest management, weak governance and unfair income distribution.

Looking after natural resources makes poorer communities more resilient. Systems such as FSC help create opportunities for them to have their say about the way this is done. It can improve management and governance, and make sure the benefits derived from forests are shared more equitably. 

We haven’t even got onto habitats, wildlife, benefits from the forest such as fuel, food, shelter, other forest products utilised and traded by communities, medicinal plants, water and climate functions – ecosystem services that are also lost as the forest is decimated for profit.

The situation is urgent and challenging. Determined, concerted action by businesses and government is required to reverse the tide for illegal timber. Raphael Rowe concluded the Panorama programme by saying there was a “chain of good intentions with very weak links”. A passive approach by business and European member states has to end, to make the EU an illegal timber free market. The knowledge and tools are there, now they must be used.

If you want to know more about the European Timber Regulation, and its obligations, you can download the guide.

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