In the months leading up to last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the European Commission committed itself to preparing a European action plan on forest law enforcement, governance, and trade. The press was talking a lot about illegal forestry activities in the Amazon, Central Africa, Siberia, and Southeast Asia, and the Commissioners wanted to find ways to keep illegally produced timber and wood products out of European markets.
But coming up with practical measures to stop importing illegal forest products has proved much harder than the Commissioners ever imagined. Many laws are so ambiguous or contradictory it is difficult to know what is really legal. Besides, even if you can define what is legal, how can a customs agent know whether some specific log or wood product has been produced illegally? And if he or she does conclude something has been produced illegally, what are they supposed to do about it? In many cases importing illegally harvested timber is not itself illegal and no one is certain whether the World Trade Organization will allow countries to keep out other countries’ products just because they were produced illegally.
Fortunately, Duncan Brack from the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Chantal Marijnissen and Saskia Ozinga from FERN, a consortium of European NGOs, have stepped in to shed light on the issue. Their "Controlling Imports of Illegal Timber, Options for Europe", systematically examines the advantages and disadvantages of each policy instrument the European Union and its member states might apply and how it could work in practice.
The report makes five main recommendations:
1) The European Union should adopt legislation to ban the entry of timber from illegal sources and work out voluntary agreements with producer countries to verify that traded forestry products come from legal sources. 2) Producer countries should be given international assistance to improve their laws, reform their forestry sectors, and establish verification systems.
3) European governments should only purchase forestry products from legal and sustainable sources.
4) Laws about money laundering and stolen goods should be used as one set of tools to address illegal forestry activities.
5) Export Credit Agencies should not guarantee loans and investments for companies involved in illegal forestry activities and financial regulators should require forestry companies to demonstrate their source of raw materials, as they do for oil and mining companies.
The authors acknowledge that many uncertainties remain. They also make clear that for the solutions they propose to achieve widespread lasting impacts exporting countries will also have to reform their own forest tenure, regulatory systems, and economic incentives. Still the report gives importing countries something to work with. That is a start.
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