Illegal Liberian timber worth thousands of Euros was sitting in a French port less than 3 weeks before a new EU law prohibiting the import of illegal timber came into force, Global Witness has revealed. Under the EU Timber Regulation, which took effect yesterday, the import of illegal timber is prohibited and could land the importer with up to two years imprisonment or a 50,000 Euro fine.
"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," said Alexandra Pardal, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness. "Almost all timber from tropical rainforests carries a high risk of illegality and should be checked out thoroughly - if there's any suspicion at all, don't touch it."
Global Witness 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.
Official export data from Liberia indicate that B & T Wood of Germany shipped 1,631 mÂÂ³ of logs cut under illegal permits to France sometime after 31 August 2012. Another German company, Treemex, shipped 929 mÂÂ³ of illegally-cut logs to France in January 2013, according to export data.
When contacted by Global Witness, B & T Wood denied importing the timber referred to in the Liberian export data but 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 stated that the Liberian government had put in place controls to stop the illegal felling and export of timber which were impossible to violate, and that they maintained a high standard of checks on the legality of the timber that they buy. 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 licences 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 are being followed.
"European timber importers will have to up their game now," said Pardal. "For decades consumer countries have been driving the demand for cheap, illegal timber that breeds corruption and criminality in forested countries while taking a devastating toll on the environment. This law is a big step towards making sure that they take responsibility for what ends up in European factories or on the high street."