Blog / Feb. 27, 2014

Combating the global trade in illegal timber: what action will China take?

Last week the Chinese government held its first ever conference on ways to tackle international flows of illegal timber.  The convening of the event, in Suifenhe, Heilongjiang Province, reflects Beijing authorities’ increased awareness of the need to address a globally destructive trade in which China, the US, EU and Japan all play a leading role.  It also highlights the critical issue of what action the Chinese government is prepared to take to exclude illegal timber from Chinese markets.

Suifenhe sits right on the border with Russia, which is the number one source of Chinese timber imports.  Recent investigations by WWF and the Environmental Investigation Agency in the Russian Far East, adjacent to Heilongjiang Province, reveal that much of the Russian wood entering China is harvested illegally.  In a report published last year, WWF calculated that at least half of the Mongolian oak exported to China in 2010 was from illegal sources.  EIA, meanwhile, conducted a multi-year investigation to trace illegally logged timber from Russia through China and on to US markets.   Last September, the NGO’s findings triggered an investigation by the US law enforcement authorities into possible violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the import of illegal wood products.

The Lacey Act and the European Timber Regulation, which also bans illegal wood imports, have forced Chinese wood product manufacturers to consider legality issues when exporting to the US and Europe.  However, the majority of the timber that flows into China stays in China to meet the growing demands of Chinese consumers.  If the Chinese government is to prevent the large-scale import of illegal timber, it will have to introduce its own legislation.

The participants in the Suifenhe conference – the Chinese and Russian governments, companies and civil society organisations – all recognised illegal logging as a significant threat to forests and the climate which must be faced directly.  Senior representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology placed particular emphasis on their efforts to enforce a ‘Roundwood Act’ passed by the Russian legislature on 30 December 2013.  This law requires much more rigorous inventorying and tracking of timber, as well as the creation of an online database displaying supply chain documentation.  The Russian officials made a direct appeal to the Chinese government and Chinese companies to support its implementation.

Zhang Yanhong, the Deputy Director of China’s State Forest Administration, underscored the increased importance the international forest products trade attaches to environmental protection and sustainable development.  With regards to efforts to combat illegal logging, meanwhile, she explained how the Chinese government was pursuing an approach based on international cooperation and negotiation.  Deputy Director Zhang noted that the government was not yet playing an active role in monitoring the performance of companies in the forest sector and this is an area it intends to work on.

Chinese forests

In the final session of the conference, Global Witness presented three recommendations for follow-up action:

The Chinese government should introduce legislation that prohibits the import of illegal timber. This would help protect Chinese companies conducting legitimate business, enable exporters to comply with US and EU legislation and protect forests in producer countries.  It would empower Chinese Customs and other law enforcement officials, who are currently unable to act, even when confronted with imports of timber that were clearly illegally harvested.

Secondly, in its forthcoming guideline for companies trading timber, the State Forest Administration (SFA) should draw on the UN due diligence framework designed to exclude illicit materials from minerals supply chains.  This framework was commissioned and endorsed by the Chinese government and other UN Security Council members in 2010. Global Witness has adapted the framework so that it can be applied to timber supply chains and this paper is available here.

Thirdly, the SFA should carry out monitoring and public reporting on implementation of its existing guidelines for forestry enterprises overseas and also of its forthcoming guideline for companies tradingtimber, once this is completed.  Existing SFA guidelines, notably the 2009 guide for companies engaged in forest management overseas, include a range of clear instructions to Chinese companies to respect national laws in all aspects of their operations.  However, there is currently no monitoring of the guide’s implementation.  Systematic monitoring and public reporting would highlight and recognise examples of good practice and facilitate learning between companies.  It would also expose companies which are not implementing the guidelines and this might provide them with an incentive to improve their practices.

At the Suifenhe conference, Global Witness was not alone in calling for China to introduce its own legislation prohibiting illegal timber imports.  The same point was made by others, including furniture retailer Ikea and the Director of the Suifenhe Customs Authority.

Suifenhe Customs Director Jin Hongman called for the process of introducing legislation and regulations in China to be speeded up. She illustrated her point by describing conversations with her son, a fan of the famous Chinese cartoon Boonie Bears about two bears trying to protect their forest from a villainous logger called Bald Man Qiang.  “My son asks me about my work overseeing timber imports from Russia and says to me ‘Mum, why are you helping Bald Man Qiang?’”, she explained.

Boonie Bears China

The Suifenhe conference generated consensus in the diagnosis of the illegal timber trade problem and the State Forest Administration and Chinese Academy of Forestry officials who organised it deserve congratulations for facilitating a candid and substantive set of exchanges.  The event also posed challenging and urgent questions, however: will the Chinese government now develop its own legislation?  Will it give its Customs officials the powers they need to combat Bald Man Qiang’s illegal timber trading?

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