Blog / June 4, 2018

EU ban on illegal timber: uneven enforcement lets companies off the hook

Five years ago the EU banned the import of illegally logged timber and required companies to conduct checks across their supply chain to ensure they are not importing illegal timber.

Yet everyday items like furniture, flooring and plywood still contain illegal tropical timber. In fact there’s still a debate about whether the law should cover some items such as musical instruments which are currently excluded. 

Global Witness thinks it is vital that the law should be expanded to apply to all products containing wood  (see our comment on the product scope of EUTR at the bottom of this blog). The illegal harvesting of timber can have a devastating impact on forests, biodiversity and local communities. Shockingly, up to a fifth of wood imports in the EU could come from illegal logging.

A recent study for the European Commission, which looked at enforcement of the law over June-November 2017, provides some interesting insights and reveals how uneven enforcement is letting companies off the hook.

There is a huge disparity between how countries monitor operators placing imported timber on the EU market. Some countries importing significant quantities of tropical high-risk timber are carrying out very few checks on companies (see the table below).

On the plus side, Germany, which has the largest number of operators placing imported timber on the EU market, carried out the highest number of checks on companies over the period (103) and found nearly two thirds of those did not have appropriate systems to check the legality of the timber. This resulted in 47 notices being issued and 5 fines.

However, France, the second biggest importer of tropical timber conducted just 14 checks on companies over the period. None of these checks identified any problems with the systems used by the companies to check the legality. This level of scrutiny is not proportionate to France’s share of the trade in tropical timber and is unlikely to deter companies from importing illegal timber into France.

The biggest importer of tropical timber is Belgium, which conducted only two checks in the same period. The European Commission has issued a warning to Belgium that they could face court action should they fail to increase their number of checks. We hope this will serve as a wake-up call for other countries to take their responsibilities seriously by increasing the quantity and quality of their checks on companies under the EU Timber Regulation.

The disparity in the number of checks on companies conducted by different countries creates a loophole whereby companies know they will face minimal or no checks in some countries. The only way to close this loophole is by ensuring adequate enforcement across the EU, including the quality and quantity of checks, and adequate follow-up action. The action against Belgium is a first step, as is the publication of the overview of EUTR enforcement.

There have been some examples of authorities cracking down on operators. The overview reports that Sweden and the Netherlands issued notices telling specific importers not to import illegal teak from Myanmar. The German court confirmed the legality of seizures of two shipments of wengé from DRC. 

The UK also imposed their first fine in this period. Sweden held a court case against a company that has failed to take measures to comply with the EUTR, after which the court handed down an unprecedented penalty of 800,000 SEK (approx. €79,000). But, given the large volumes of high risk timber still entering the EU market, we should be seeing a greater number of enforcement cases in more EU countries.

It’s now time for national governments to ensure their national authorities are enforcing this key piece of EU law, so that companies trading here are not driving forest destruction in other parts of the world.

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