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Loud alarm bells for growth in environmental crime, who is listening?

24 Jun 2016

Countries:

On the 4th of June, on the eve of World Environment Day, UNEP and Interpol raised the alarm bells loudly: environmental crime is growing at an alarming pace, and has now become the world's fourth-largest crime after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

The report, The Rise of Environmental Crime, also clearly points to the fact that environmental crimes are aggravated through their additional impact on the environment and cost to future generations. These crimes cause loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water, extreme weather mitigation, food security and even health and wellbeing. They also deprive governments of much-needed revenues and undermine legal businesses.

Logging illegally in protected forest areas and selling this illegal timber on the world market is by far the largest category of these environmental crimes. The annual loss of resources is estimated at $50-152 billion per year, about 60 % of the total loss of resources caused by environmental crimes.

Illegal logging: the number one environmental crime

As major timber consuming markets, the EU, USA and Australia have all introduced laws to restrict the access of illegally harvested timber to their markets. The USA was the first to pass an illegal logging law in 2008, by amending the Lacey Act of 1900, their main weapon in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. In 2003, the European Union (EU) launched the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan (EU FLEGT) to tackle illegal logging and its associated trade, and adopted the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) in October 2010. In Australia, the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act took full effect in November 2014.

China needs to step up their commitments

These efforts are essential and commendable, yet illegal logging remains endemic in many parts of the world and illegal timber continues to reach international markets. One major reason is that rising demand for timber in emerging economies, especially China, has undermined the impact of policies introduced in other regions. In their report ‘Tackling Illegal Logging and the Related Trade What Progress and Where Next?’, Chatham house estimated that half of all the trade in illegal wood-based products is now destined for China, the largest consumer as well as a major processing hub. Our own research comes to similar conclusions looking at the global market for timber from the Congo basin.

Since 2012, China surpassed the EU as the most important market for Congo Basin wood, but while the EU, Australia and the US have introduced legislation to tackle the issue of illegal timber, the Chinese government has so far only introduced voluntary measures. It is therefore reliant on the ability and willingness of the timber sector itself to clean up the trade in suspect wood. However, based on the results from interviews with the larger traders conducted by Greenpeace East Asia, those companies seem to play ignorant and are unwilling to address the issue.

The UNEP report recommends strong action, legislation and sanctions at the national and international level to crack these sophisticated international criminal gangs. The little efforts made by the Chinese government to tackle illegal logging show that China is not taking the problem seriously.  Yet, with becoming a global player comes also taking global responsibility, and China should as a minimum introduce similar measures as the ones taken by European, Australian and American authorities. 

Europe: stronger enforcement should be the EU’s answer

Our call on China to tighten up control of Chinese timber traders is no invitation for other countries to sit back and rest on their laurels. In Europe, for example, the EUTR’s effectiveness is hindered by poor enforcement, leniency with sanctions and implementation delays by EU Member States, and companies’ compliance with the law remains largely insufficient. In Belgium, for example, the EUTR authorities are structurally under resourced and have only carried out 18 checks in two years. Greenpeace and partner NGO’s have submitted to the Belgium authorities about 10 cases of suspected violations of the EUTR, no sanctions have ever been applied. The situation is of great concern. As we write these lines, Belgium remains a major gateway for illegal timber to the EU market.  The same conclusion also holds for countries like Spain and France.

However, efforts to eliminate illegal timber from the EU market received a boost in March when, for the first time, Dutch authorities sanctioned a company for breaching the EU Timber Regulation. The move came after Greenpeace sent its investigative report on Cameroonian timber trader CCT to the Dutch authorities. Yet much more remain to be done to keep illegal timber out of the EU market. Many EU countries are still lagging behind in implementation and enforcement of the EUTR.

The recent UNEP-INTERPOL report on environmental crime recommends stronger action, legislation and sanctions at the national and international level. We hope this message will be heard by the European agriculture ministers who are meeting in Brussels on 27-28 June to take stock of progress achieved since the launch of the EU action plan on illegal logging in 2003. We have great expectations that they will agree to intensify and improve the quality and effectiveness of checks carried out on companies placing timber on the EU market, and to take firm action against those that violate the EU’s illegal timber law. All potential entry points for illegal timber to the EU market must be closed.