• Governments lose US$5bn in revenue through illegal logging.
• Ghanaian timber accredited to the EU’s FLEGT legality scheme won’t get to the UK until 2010.
• Competing materials, especially concrete, aim to exceed timber’s responsible sourcing credentials.
• The EC says legislation against illegal timber trading like the US Lacey Act is unviable for the EU.
• The Rainforest Foundation criticised the Forest Stewardship Council.

Illegal logging is still the hottest topic in the global timber trade. Further evidence was provided at the latest Institute of International Affairs conference on the issue at Chatham House in London in January, which drew over 200 people from across the world.

Defra minister Huw Irranca-Davies opened the event with some stark statistics underlining how far there is still to go in the war to eradicate a trade that “robs people and encourages corruption across national boundaries”:
• governments, he said, lose US$5bn in revenue annually through illegal logging;
• around two-thirds of all logging in Indonesia is illegal;
• in Cameroon it’s 50%.

Emphasising the need for sustainable management of forests, the minister added, they hold 80% of the world’s biodiversity, store 638 giga tonnes of carbon and provide a livelihood for 4.5 billion people.

Procurement doubts

Mr Irranca-Davies reaffirmed the UK government’s own commitment to the fight, using its timber procurement rules, providing aid to supplier countries and backing so-called due diligence timber sourcing, where traders assess suppliers to minimise the risk of handling illegal wood.

Subsequent presentations slightly diluted these pledges, however, with news that progress is still slow on establishing Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with supplier countries, seen as key to the UK government hitting its target of procuring only proven legal and sustainable timber from April.

VPAs form part of the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance & Trade (FLEGT) programme to eliminate illegal timber entering Europe. Despite “enormous efforts”, the conference heard, to date only Ghana has signed an agreement ( September 13, 2008). Malaysia, Cameroon and Congo are expected to sign VPAs this year, but fears that the bureaucracy involved could affect competitiveness has put the brakes on. China, Brazil and others are at varying stages of discussion, but their agreements are still thought to be some way off.

It is not all good news from Ghana either. The consensus among the Ghana Forestry Commission, the NGO Care Ghana and timber trader John Bitar, was that Ghanaian FLEGT-compliant timber will not arrive in the UK before 2010. Some fear it may be even later.

Speakers from Malaysia and Cameroon, including Ivy Wong of WWF Malaysia, Ramy Bulan of Universiti Malay and Samuel Nguiffo of the Cameroon Center for Environment and Develop-ment, further highlighted the complexities of implementing VPAs. They also brought up concerns that these agreements may differ from country to country, giving some a competitive advantage. Doubts were also expressed on their effectiveness in protecting indigenous people’s rights.

Concrete eco claims

BRE chief executive Dr Peter Bonfield caused a stir in addressing the commercial imperative of beating illegal loggers. Looking at the responsible sourcing of building materials in the UK, he said that, while the timber industry has made huge progress in improving and proving its environmental record, it cannot relax.

“Competing materials realise that they must meet or exceed timber’s credentials and are doing so in areas like corporate social responsibility, combating child labour, employment policy and factory environmental impact.”

Timber, he added, has a head start thanks to its renewability, but others are catching up in the sustainability race, with concrete in particular gaining ground.

Emily Fripp of the Tropical Forest Trust (TFT) gave an update on the Timber Trade Action Plan. This collaborative effort between the TFT and European timber trade federations aims to tighten up companies’ environmental codes of practice and procurement policies and works with suppliers to improve forest management and reduce the risk of illegal material entering the supply chain. Rates of progress on the plan differed around the world, said Ms Fripp.

Due diligence

Hugo-Maria Schally from the European Commission said he wanted to see European governments setting up more VPAs with supplier countries more quickly. But he stressed that they are not a cure all and, even when they were established, governments and companies must still police the supply chain.

Some companies and NGOs back a European version of the US Lacey Act under which it is an offence to import illegal timber, with breaches punishable with fines and even jail. But Mr Schally said the EU still backed the due diligence approach, where companies must prove they have taken all reasonable steps to avoid handling illegal material.

Rachel Butler from the UK Timber Trade Federation said its due diligence-based Responsible Purchasing Policy for members had met resistance in the past, but now had support from across the industry.

Underlining that there is no room for complacency in the illegal timber debate, Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation was even critical of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), widely considered the ‘gold standard’ of environmental forest certification schemes. He said the FSC’s legality verification scheme was being “breached” around the world due to “lack of rigour, poor training, lack of control and possible bribery”.

FSC UK executive director Charles Thwaites said the organisation would look into these allegations.