Combating the global trade in illegal timber: what action will China take?

Chinese officials deserve praise for organising a recent conference on the illegal timber trade - but they still need legislative action
<p>In a report published last year, WWF calculated that at least half of the Mongolian oak exported to China in 2010 was from illegal sources (Image copyright: Global Witness)</p>

In a report published last year, WWF calculated that at least half of the Mongolian oak exported to China in 2010 was from illegal sources (Image copyright: Global Witness)

Last week the Chinese government held its first ever conference on ways to tackle international flows of illegal timber, in Suifenhe, Heilongjiang province. The convening of the event reflects Beijing’s increased awareness of the need to address a globally destructive trade in which China, the US, the EU and Japan all play a leading role.

Suifenhe sits right on the border with Russia, which is the number one source of Chinese timber imports. Recent investigations by WWF and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in the Russian Far East, adjacent to Heilongjiang province, reveal that much of the Russian wood entering China is harvested illegally.

In a report published last year, WWF calculated that at least half of the Mongolian oak exported to China in 2010 was from illegal sources. EIA, meanwhile, conducted an  investigation over several years to trace illegally logged timber from Russia through China and on to US markets. Last September, the NGO’s findings triggered an investigation by the US law enforcement authorities into possible violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the import of illegal wood products.

The Lacey Act and the European Timber Regulation, which also bans illegal wood imports, have forced Chinese wood product manufacturers to consider how their wood was obtained when exporting to the US and Europe. However, China has no such laws concerning the timber that flows into China to meet the growing demands of Chinese consumers. If the Chinese government is to prevent the large-scale import of illegal timber, it will have to introduce its own legislation.

The participants in the Suifenhe conference – the Chinese and Russian governments, companies and civil society organisations – all recognised illegal logging as a significant threat to forests and climate which must be faced directly. Senior representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology placed particular emphasis on their efforts to enforce a ‘Roundwood Act’ passed by the Russian legislature on December 30, 2013. 

This law requires much more rigorous inventorying and tracking of timber, as well as the creation of an online database displaying supply chain documentation. The Russian officials made a direct appeal to the Chinese government and Chinese companies to support its implementation.

Zhang Yanhong, the deputy director of China’s State Forest Administration, highlighted the importance of environmental protection and sustainable development to the international forest products trade. She explained that the Chinese government was pursuing an approach based on international cooperation and negotiation, with regards to efforts to combat illegal logging, though was not yet playing an active role in monitoring the performance of companies in the forest sector, an area it intends to work on.

At the Suifenhe conference, Global Witness was not alone in calling for China to introduce its own legislation prohibiting illegal timber imports. The same point was made by others, including furniture retailer Ikea and the director of the Suifenhe Customs Authority. In the final session of the conference, Global Witness presented three recommendations for action:

The Chinese government should introduce legislation that prohibits the import of illegal timber. This would help protect Chinese companies conducting legitimate business, enable exporters to comply with US and EU legislation and protect forests in producer countries. It would empower Chinese customs and other law enforcement officials, who are currently unable to act, even when confronted with imports of timber that were clearly illegally harvested.

Secondly, in its forthcoming guidelines for companies trading timber, the State Forest Administration (SFA) should draw on the UN due diligence framework designed to exclude illicit materials from mineral supply chains. This framework was commissioned and endorsed by the Chinese government and other UN Security Council members in 2010. Global Witness has adapted the framework so that it can be applied to timber supply chains.

Thirdly, the SFA should carry out monitoring and public reporting on implementation of its existing guidelines for forestry enterprises overseas and also of its forthcoming guideline for companies trading timber, once this is completed. Existing SFA guidelines, notably the 2009 guide for companies engaged in forest management overseas, include a range of clear instructions to Chinese companies to respect national laws in all aspects of their operations. However, there is currently no monitoring of the guide’s implementation.

Systematic monitoring and public reporting would highlight and recognise examples of good practice and facilitate learning between companies. It would also expose companies which are not implementing the guidelines and this might provide them with an incentive to improve their practices.