Uniform EU-wide enforcement is clearly a key factor in the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) achieving its goal of blocking illegal timber from the market.

What’s equally clear is that such uniformity was absent when the EUTR was introduced in 2013. And it’s been a work in progress since, with some EU states moving faster and applying more resources to implementation than others.

This prompted concerns that uneven enforcement might compromise the wider EUTR framework, and cause disillusion among EU timber businesses subject to stricter enforcement, while others faced a seemingly less onerous compliance burden.

Fears were raised too that suppliers might be less inclined to meet European customers’ due diligence demands if they thought the EUTR wasn’t evenly applied.

But after an understandably challenging start there are now more encouraging signs that common EUTR implementation standards can be achieved across the EU.

A combination of assistance, advice and warnings of punitive action from the European Commission (EC) has increasingly brought EU states in line on introduction of national legislation to enact the EUTR and on penalty regimes for violations.

Equally positively, not only for implementation now, but also for the EUTR’s continuing evolution and increasing effectiveness longer term, there’s also the Timber Regulation Enforcement Exchange, or TREE.

Backed with UK Department for International Development funds, but autonomous, TREE is a forum for the EUTR enforcement front line, the Competent Authorities (CAs), to exchange knowledge and experience.

The aim is to strengthen their capabilities through sharing and cooperation, notably in identifying high-risk timber sources and trade routes and to help develop an enforcement regime whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Critically, TREE also engaged enforcement bodies for the US Lacey Act anti-illegal timber legislation from the start. And it now involves their Canadian counterparts and Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition Regulation (AILPR) agencies, further broadening its expertise and intelligence base. Moreover it is increasingly encouraging participation from other countries that have or are considering similar regulations such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.

TREE was originally the brainchild of forest and ecosystems finance and markets research institute Forest Trends (FT) and international think tank Chatham House.

“In 2012 I was at Chatham House assessing EUTR readiness of CAs, while FT’s trade and finance director Kirsten Canby, was supporting a study tour of European CAs visiting Lacey Act agencies,” said Ms Saunders. “We decided to pool resources and the TREE concept emerged, initially looking at EU/US liaison on legality regulation issues.

“The Lacey Act and EUTR may be structured differently, but to a timber sector ‘operator’ importer their requirements look quite similar. Their enforcement agencies also require similar intelligence, trade data, information exchange, and supplier risk analysis.”

Initial responses to the idea were positive both sides of the Atlantic.

“As far as the EUTR is concerned, given the size of the undertaking and means available to them, the CAs have already done an impressive job. They’ve developed their understanding of the timber sector, its awareness of the EUTR and, of course, established enforcement procedures.

Equivalent regulation in other sectors took a decade to reach this point,” said Ms Saunders. “At the same time EU authorities and agencies saw possibilities for TREE helping strengthen their performance. They’re undertaking a complex job, which requires getting a handle on high [illegality] risk wood flows across the global supply chain, they work to a high evidential threshold and they have limited resources.”

The initial TREE meeting in 2013 attracted 60 delegates. It now convenes biannually in different European venues, averaging 18-20 CA representatives, four to five from US Lacey Act administration and enforcement agencies and at least one from Australia.

While the TREE conference format has also evolved, its basis was established at the outset. “These are busy people, with some also responsible for regulation in other sectors,” said Ms Saunders. “So TREE meeting content must be tailored to their needs, focused on credible data and practical tools.”

Consequently TREE’s agenda setting is collaborative. “After each four-day meeting, we ask delegates which country, product or other risk area they’d like featured at the next and then bring the relevant people and data together,” said Ms Saunders. “So FT facilitates the meetings, but participants shape the content.”

Presenters are described as an ‘expert resource’, invited strictly to provide information that can assist CAs, Lacey Act and AILPR agencies in their work. “There’s no advocacy space,” said Ms Saunders. “Delegates are implementing bodies, not policy-makers. They’re not there to be lobbied.”

But that proviso doesn’t restrict the speaker range. They’re drawn from consumer and supplier country authorities, the timber and forestry industry, end users, NGOs, research and technical bodies and consultancies. And at April’s TREE meeting in Prague, countries in focus from timber supply or regulation perspectives, included Belarus, Cameroon, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Robbie Weich, of UK-based Brazilian timber specialist Tradelink, presented at Tree’s 2015 Vienna meeting and saw its value from a trade perspective.

“We’ve been concerned about inconsistent EUTR implementation and that CAs might be overwhelmed by the volume of source country regulation. So it was valuable to hear about their progress, as well as challenges they face, and that they’re keen to educate the private sector on enforcement and auditing.”

“European Commission representatives also attend,” said Ms Saunders. “And we’ve had representatives of Project Leaf, Interpol’s anti-illegal timber initiative. They’re limited in their communication with timber regulation enforcement agencies, as their liaison is with national police authorities. But it’s useful for delegates to hear about their activities and vice versa.”

Auditing professionals are among TREE’s most valued speakers.

“They’re involved on the ground in forestry and chain of custody certification, so have considerable expertise and knowledge about illegality risk, governance issues, and identification of problem products and supply sources,” said Ms Saunders. “They’re also keen to share it.”

To ensure frank discussions among enforcement bodies, private sessions take place after the presentations, and the meetings are generally held under Chatham House Rules, so comments are only reported unattributed.

Delegates also continue discussions after hours to swap ideas and intelligence. “That includes CAs and their US and Australian counterparts, who are keen to understand where their activities are complementary,” said Ms Saunders.

She could not say whether such discussions had informed specific investigations or ‘live’ cooperation. “But clearly establishing these individual relationships has potential to assist their work.”

Underlining that TREE’s roots continue to spread, the Prague meeting had the first delegates from Polish, Portuguese and Greek CAs. That meant 22 out of 28 have now attended.

How TREE develops next will be down to participants, but Ms Saunders gave a number of possible directions: “As enforcement agencies undertake more investigations and prosecutions of potential violations, TREE meetings could focus more on these; so more on peer doing than peer thinking.”

CAs, she added, may also look more at building capacity for prohibition cases against companies charged with handling illegal timber.

“Reflecting activity on the ground, the focus so far has been on enforcement of ‘operator’ importers’ EUTR due diligence requirements and how to judge and mitigate risk, within that context. But as understanding of this grows, delegates may want to move to prohibition issues.”

And there can be little doubt TREE will continue to convene. Attendance is growing and delegate surveys get 80-90% ‘agreed’ to questions such as whether the content helped them strengthen enforcement capacity, or contributed to consistent implementation of regulations.

“Participants are very committed,” said Ms Saunders. “In fact, some have even taken unpaid leave to attend.”