Blog / Nov. 8, 2018

Clamping down on Vietnam’s illegal timber trade: EU trade agreements should signal a new era

Vietnam is a major wood processor - hoovering up timber from rainforest-rich countries in Africa and beyond. Its trade with the EU now stands to see an major boost, following the recently concluded Free Trade Agreement and so-called Voluntary Partnership Agreement. This lift to international trade demands action from Vietnam, to prevent it from becoming a new global timber laundering hub - a process which helps destroy climate-critical forests across the globe.

China’s role in the global trade in illegal timber has been well documented, including in Global Witness reports. But now, as a trade war begins to escalate between the US and China, it is Vietnam which is also becoming an increasingly important destination for tropical timber that is known to be at a high risk of being illegally harvested.

When we analysed wood exports from the world’s second largest rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for our recent Total Systems Failure report, we saw a significant shift in 2017 with Vietnam overtaking China as the main destination for DRC’s timber. Vietnam received a whopping 74% of timber harvested by DRC’s main logging company last year, responsible for widespread illegal logging in the country. Many of the imported tree species are classed as “endangered” or “vulnerable”, signalling a high risk of environmental harm.

This trend is mirrored across the region, with data from Forest Trends showing that imports of timber from Africa to Vietnam increased by over 40% in a year.[1] This timber is often from countries characterised by weak governance, high levels of corruption and even conflict, with widespread risks of illegality in their timber harvesting.

The US, EU and Australia all have laws in place to prohibit the import of illegally harvested timber, and requiring companies to conduct due diligence to identify and mitigate the risk of illegality. These laws have played a key role in slowing down illegal trade and improving the chances of saving the world’s last climate-critical forests. However, Vietnam is a weak link in the regulation of the global timber trade because it doesn’t have effective controls in place.

The recently signed EU-Vietnam Voluntary Partnership Agreement commits Vietnam to a number of measures to strengthen import controls. The importance of these measures has been recognised by the EU High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini, who recently said at the signature of the agreement that, “controlling the legality of imports will be critical to full implementation of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement.”

As ever, the devil is in the detail. Vietnam must ensure that any measures are strong enough to stop illegal timber entering the market; robust enforcement is key. This includes:

  • An effective ban on illegal timber and a requirement on those placing timber on the market to conduct thorough due diligence (not relying on official documents where there are high levels of corruption in source countries).
  • Sufficient capacity and expertise on the part of enforcement authorities to conduct checks on importers, undertake investigations and identify species.
  • Transparency and complaint mechanisms so that third parties can submit complaints and information is shared between stakeholders and authorities.
  • Making full use of dissuasive sanctions.

The Vietnamese timber industry could play a crucial role in helping safeguard the world’s last rainforests. They have much to gain from exercising due diligence even now to protect their commercial reputation. In the meantime, EU importers should not consider the Free Trade Agreement nor the Voluntary Partnership Agreement as a green light to import wood products from Vietnam.


[1] An increase of 43.2% in volume and 40% in value from 2016 -17. “Vietnam imports timber materials from Africa: Status – Risks”, FOREST TRENDS, VIFORES, FPA BD, and HAWA, August 2018.

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