Illegal timber from Liberia worth thousands of Euros has been discovered at a French port less than three weeks before a new EU law prohibiting the importation of illegal timber came into force, Global Witness revealed on Monday.
Under EU Timber Regulation which took effect Monday, the importation of illegal timber is prohibited and violators could face up to two years imprisonment or a 50,000 Euro fine.
Senior Campaigner at Global Witness Alexandra Pardal said, "The discovery of illegal Liberian timber in Europe just as the new law kicks in underlines the need for European companies to make sure they're complying or face some very heavy penalties."
Alexandra said almost all timber from tropical rainforests carries a high risk of illegality and should be checked thoroughly, warning "if there's any suspicion at all, don't touch it." Global Witness says it found huge tropical logs from Liberia lying in the port at Nantes, France on 13 February.
"Labels on the logs clearly showed they were cut under a permit that was found to be illegal by an investigative committee set up by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf," said the international watchdog group.
According to Global Witness, official export data from Liberia indicate that B & T Wood of Germany shipped 1,631 cubic meters (mÂ³) of logs cut under illegal permits to France sometime after 31 August 2012; while another German company, Treemex, shipped 929 cubic meters (mÂ³) of illegally-cut logs to France in January 2013.
But when contacted by Global Witness, B & T Wood denied importing the timber referred to in the Liberian export data; though they confirmed that they had imported Liberian timber cut under the same type of logging permit into France in or around September 2012.
B & T Wood is quoted by Global Witness as stating that the Liberian Government had put in place control measures to stop the illegal felling and export of timber therefore, it was impossible to violate those measures. The company said it maintained a high standard of checks on the legality of the timber that it buys, but Treemex did not respond.
Investigations and reports by Global Witness, Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in 2012 revealed how a breakdown in law and order in Liberia saw 40 per cent of the country's tropical rainforests handed over to logging companies through the widespread and illegal issuance of logging licenses called Private Use Permits (PUPs).
These permits were used by logging companies to avoid regulations and tax obligations. An independent investigative committee commissioned by President Johnson-Sirleaf published a report last December, detailing the many ways in which the issuance of Private Use Permits violated Liberian laws.
The report also found evidence of systematic fraud, falsification of documentation and corrupt payments to officials. Global Witness has documented the trail of illegal Private Use Permit timber from Liberia to China, India, Turkey, Russia and United Arab Emirates, in addition to France.
Under the new law, any company importing timber into the EU is now required to carry out thorough background checks to ensure that the timber was logged according to the producer country's laws.
In high-risk countries where the rule of law is weak, which is the case in most tropical forested countries, companies will need to be aware of the details of each logging license under which timber is cut and take measures to verify that all relevant laws were being followed.
The international trade in illegal timber is worth up to US$100 billion globally, according to Interpol, which announced a major crackdown on the trade on 20 February in which 200 people across 12 Central and Southern American countries were arrested.