European Parliament approves legislation on illegal timber

On 7 July 2010, the European Parliament agreed on the text of legislation preventing illegally logged timber from being imported and sold across the EU. Votes on the regulation, named ‘Obligations of Operators who Place Timber and Timber Products on the Market’, were 644-25 in favour, and it is understood that it is likely to be approved by the Council in the autumn, after which it will become binding.

The move has been welcomed by NGOs such as WWF and Greenpeace, as well as the European Commission. ‘Combating illegal logging will bring environmental and development benefits,’ commented European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik. ‘With this, we are sending a signal to the world that the EU will no longer serve as a market for illegally harvested timber.’ Meanwhile, Greenpeace spokeswoman Sarah Shoraka outlined the effects of the ban closer to home: ‘At long last illegal timber and products made from this wood will no longer end up in UK shops,’ she said.

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the current pan-European trade in illegal timber is worth around $700 million a year and that up to 20 per cent of all logs entering or passing through the EU are from illegal sources. Now, traders will be liable for prosecution for any wood products that they have acquired in violation not only of EU law, but of the laws of the country in which they were logged.

The legislation provides for a ‘due diligence’ system whereby importers must implement systems to minimise the risk of placing illegal timber on the market. Managing risk will include having access to information on the source, supplier, and compliance with legislation. The prevalence of illegal harvesting will need to be considered, and except where the risk is identified as negligible, risk mitigation procedures must be carried out. The greater the level of risk identified, the more detailed the information needs to be, reaching as far as sub-regions and concessions. Certification and third-party verification schemes that verify compliance with legislation can be used by operators as part of the due diligence system. In cases where there is a significant risk of illegal logging, timber will need to be tracked to the forest of origin.

Where an importer already subscribes to a current system that provides the reasonable assurance of legality demanded in the legislation, there is no requirement to switch to a new system. And operators can use systems maintained by ‘monitoring organisations’ such as trade associations, in place of setting up their own.

Timber licensed under another major EU illegal logging initiative—the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreements (FLEGT VPA)—will be considered as legally harvested under the due diligence regulation (VPAs are trade agreements between the EU and a timber producing country, under which the producer country sets up a legality assurance system, including verification components, and the EU commits not to allow the import of any product included in the agreement unless it is accompanied by a licence).

EU member state competent authorities are to verify that operators and monitoring organisations comply with the new regulations. The text of the legislation stipulates that member states have responsibility for setting out rules for penalties and their enforcement, rather than laying down an EU-wide sanction system, as some had hoped for.

Laurent Rathborn, London.