In 2012, when I first started researching China's illegal timber imports, related news or information in Chinese was scarce. Six years on, however, a study co-authored by a Chinese government research institution offers a flicker of hope. China may be heading in the right direction and joining a growing global community who prohibit illegal timber imports by law.
The recently published summary of an EU-China joint study identifies options that China could adopt to ensure the legality of imported timber. The study reflects a growing understanding of the challenge China faces. On one hand, China is currently the largest timber market without any legislation prohibiting illegal timber imports. On the other, China needs measures that suit a large and complex emerging economy. For example, China imports more logs than any other country and, therefore, is more directly exposed to illegal logging.
Mandatory measures such as laws and regulations are the most significant of the seven options identified in the joint study. This would oblige companies to carry out checks on the legality of their timber imports and penalize them for not doing so. If implemented effectively, mandatory measures would safeguard China's global reputation as a responsible trading partner. It would also benefit its own timber industry by reassuring buyers in countries with laws against illegal timber, including its two largest markets, the EU and U.S., that products from China use only legal wood. The world's forests, on which China's timber industry depends, would also win as they'd be less vulnerable to the destruction caused by illegal logging.
China's vast wood product manufacturing sector is dependent on raw materials from overseas, but these imports include significant amounts of tropical timber that is at high risk of being produced illegally. Over 80% of China's tropical log imports in 2016 came from countries that are amongst the lowest in the World Bank's global ranking on corruption and the rule of law.
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), China's largest tropical log supplier, one third of its exports were harvested under leases declared as illegal by PNG's Prime Minister, yet the PNG government did nothing to end the logging and exports. This contributed to a tripling in the country's deforestation rate between 2013 to 2015. Global Witness followed timber flows from PNG to China and found few companies in China took any steps to carry out due diligence checks and avoid the purchase of illegal wood.
China is also a major destination for timber from several countries where Global Witness has uncovered evidence of illegal logging. All Liberia's large logging contracts are illegal, due to companies hiding their true ownership, failing to pay taxes, manipulating logging data, or co-opting community forest licenses. Companies are also repeatedly breaking forest protection laws and underpaying taxes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And official documents are regularly falsified in Peru to make illegal timber appear legal.
The EU-China joint study provides clear directions for the Chinese government to consider. A wise step now would be to set a clear timetable to get a mandatory measure passed to exclude illegal timber from the Chinese market. The process of formulating such a measure should be open and inclusive. I would love to see my hopes realised for a more responsible Chinese timber trade.