Regulating timber in the EU

A worker uses his mobile phone as he sits in front of logs of wood for sale at a warehouse in the southern Indian city of Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu

A worker uses his mobile phone as he sits in front of logs of wood for sale at a warehouse in the southern Indian city of Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu

The world’s forests are in crisis. Earth’s forest ecosystems have experienced an unprecedented rate of destruction and de-gradation, most of which has occurred in the last two hundred years.

According to the World Resources Institute, 80 per cent of the Earth’s original forests are now gone. Very little of what remains is still large enough to maintain the forest’s biodiversity.

These ‘frontier’ forests, subjected to only limited human disturbance, are dominated by native trees and provide a variety of habitat types. They are large enough to support viable populations of native species and withstand natural disasters.

Many of the forested areas which remain may lack the size to maintain all of their ecological functions. Fragmented old-growth forests or second-growth forests may no longer support full natural biodiversity.

Forests are under threat of destruction or degradation from various human disturbances. Conversion to agriculture, housing, industrial development, oil and gas drilling, mining, flooding for hydroelectric dams, over-hunting or collection of wildlife, introduction of invasive species and cutting firewood for fuel all take their toll.

Yet the greatest threat outweighing all these is logging for timber. Of particular concern are primary tropical forests or rainforests, what scientists call closed-canopy moist forests.

The total loss of tropical forests has been estimated by the United Nations at 37 million acres per year. More recent research indicates that the amount of forest degradation due to logging and other disruptive (extractive) activities may be double or triple that figure.

Tropical forest loss is leading to the greatest mass extinction of plants and animals that has occurred on Earth in 65 million years, estimated at over 300 species per day. The leading factor in the loss of tropical forests is unsustainable and often illegal logging for timber.

Loggers bulldoze roads into pristine forests seeking high-value trees such as wenge, mahogany, iroko, ipe, virola, padauk, greenheart, ramin, apitong, and others types of wood.

The boreal forests of colder regions are a leading depository of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main gas causing global warming. These forests have recently come under siege.

In Canada, old-growth boreal forests are being cut down by Canadian and foreign companies for wood products markets in the US, Asia and Europe. Trees from Russia’s boreal forests are being sold to the highest bidder.

Old-growth temperate forests in developed countries have largely been converted to plantations or cleared. Less than five per cent of original old-growth forests remain in the US and less than one per cent in Europe.

Remaining old-growth temperate rainforests in Canada, Chile and other areas are being rapidly cut down for timber and pulp mills.

Rainforest Relief, an organisation set up to save tropical forests, reports that certain species are being over-targeted for commercial trade, leading to excessive demands on fragile or recovering temperate zone forests.


The number of species of plants and animals estimated to be rendered extinct each day due to tropical forest loss

Wood products from plantation forests are offered as a solution to declining native forests by some industry and government representatives.

Unfortunately, many native forests are still being eliminated in favour of new plantations with fast-growing, often non-native species such as eucalyptus and Radiata pine. This is a particular problem in tropical and coastal temperate rainforests.

Also, wood products importers and retailers have learned that claims of plantation origin for types of wood which really come from native forests pacify fears of ill-informed consumers. For this reason, wood products from plantations must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

It is a challenge getting the timber industry to reduce its effect on the world’s endangered forests by avoiding key, high-demand tree species and refusing to take wood from threatened areas. Seeking non-wood alternatives and supporting the use of independently-certified wood products in construction is a better choice.

The fact that a fair chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation, puts the forestry sector in the centre of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, which is up for renewal in 2013.

The EU timber regulation (EUTR), which came into force on March 3, 2013, bans illegal timber in member states and requires companies placing wood or wood products on the market for the first time to assess the risk that those products may have come from an illegal source, and to mitigate that risk.

The Timber Trade Federation has warned its members: “This is known as due diligence and must happen before you buy the product. It has to be undertaken even if the product is certified. Failure to act now could see timber traders facing a criminal charge.”

Records must be kept of the supplier, tree species, place of origin and the amount bought along with a risk assessment on the product.

The advice to importers is clear: “In determining the level of risk you must use credible information about the country of origin, the supplier, the product and any other sources of information.

“You should not place an order for a product until you have been through this process and taken any necessary measures to minimise your risk from the product. You should also record what action you are taking to reduce your risk going forward.”

For wood products already in the EU on which due diligence has taken place, records need to be kept of who the product was bought from and sold to. This helps enforcement agencies to trace illegal products up and down the supply chain and take them off the market if needed.

The timber federation says it has developed a responsible purchasing policy tool enabling companies to comply with the legislation and has made it compulsory for members as a free benefit.

The International Tropical Timber Organisation says the new regulations will “reinforce the existing trends for smaller businesses to pull out of direct importing and buy from larger importers to avoid the risk of prosecution under the EUTR and the due diligence work involved”.


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