4 March 2014

Africa: Tackling Illegal Logging Should Not Be a Yearly Event

opinion

Anniversaries can vary in significance, both to people individually and to wider audiences. On paper, the first anniversary of the introduction of a piece of timber legislation might not be a birthday that is chalked up in many people's calendar.

But actually, 12 months after the European Union's Timber Regulation came into force it is a good time to reflect on the impact of the law and to call on governments to do more to ensure that it is enforced effectively.

The EUTR prohibits the placement of any illegally sourced timber - or timber products - on the European market. It marked the culmination of several years work from many organisations - Greenpeace amongst them - and is a big step forward in the worldwide battle against deforestation and forest degradation.

Interpol estimates that illegal logging accounts for more than half - and in some cases up to 90 per cent - of all forestry in key tropical producing countries: a lot of this wood heads to Europe.

The EUTR in theory closes off one avenue for a lot of that illegal cargo and requires timber companies trading in Europe to ensure due diligence and prevent any suspect or illegally sourced wood entering their supply chains.

But, although it may be stating the obvious, it's worth noting that a law is only effective if it is enforced. And unfortunately, throughout the last 12 months, various Greenpeace teams in Europe have exposed shipments of suspected illegal timber from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) entering the continent.

A shipment of endangered Wenge wood from the Congolese operator, Bakri Bois Corporation, the legality of which had already been earmarked by Belgian authorities as "doubtful" while being held in Antwerp port, found its way to a veneer processing facility in the Czech Republic, to two locations in Germany and one in Italy. German authorities deemed the wood illegal under the terms of the EUTR and confiscated it.

This was initially a promising step but the file has not led to a criminal investigation and the German companies that placed the wood on the EU market have not been fined nor prosecuted. Bois d'Afrique Mondiale, the Swiss based company that supplied the wood in the first place, has yet to be held accountable. The wood in the Czech Republic has not even been confiscated and in Italy the authorities say there is nothing they can do.

More recently a Greenpeace France team "confiscated" a batch of suspect timber from the Sicobois company in the port of Caen. Greenpeace France had already filed its concerns with the legality of the wood and urged the government to seize the wood in July. At the time of writing no meaningful action has been undertaken by the French authorities.

Sicobois, BAM and BBC are perfect examples of the type of company that are able to operate, seemingly with impunity, in countries such as the DRC. Greenpeace has tracked the operations of Sicobois for many years and recently I went with a team from our Kinshasa office and local partners to conduct a field research and discovered that the company is still a source of conflict around its operations in the Lisala area of Equateur province.

We spoke to two victims of an attack and abduction allegedly perpetrated by Sicobois workers in the village of Mpoita Mombila, that led to a chain of events that saw a further six residents arrested.

Sicobois denies it engages in illegal activities but acknowledges problems with its logging permit, the publication its of concession contract and markings on the wood. It puts those blatant infringements down to clerical oversight, unclear borders and human error.

A year ago Greenpeace Africa described the state of the DRC forestry sector as "organized chaos". Nothing has changed since. Weak forest governance and widespread corruption mean companies such as Sicobois are operating with impunity.

The DRC has by no means the biggest logging sector in the world, or Africa, or even the Congo Basin. But it is among the most chaotic. Being home to vast tracts of the world's second largest tropical rain-forested area provides an example of the threats to forests around the world and the communities who depend upon them if illegal logging is not tackled effectively at source and at the final destination.

Danielle van Oijen is a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Netherlands.

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