Ending the trade in illegal timber doesn’t just mean tackling its root causes in forested countries. It means stopping it from entering Europe. Indra Van Gisbergen travels to the Port of Antwerp to see how the EU is enforcing its own laws - and makes an alarming discovery. 

This is an age when you can buy or sell goods from almost any corner of the globe with a tap of a computer keyboard. When more than 4 billion of the planet’s 7.7 billion inhabitants use the internet, and companies manage massively complicated supply chains via remote digital technology. 

Yet on a bright summer morning at the Port of Antwerp, the overriding impression is not how much global trade has changed, but how little. 

This sprawling complex with its endless terminals, 160 km of quayside and freight which handle 200 million tonnes of goods a year, may be unrecognisable from when the first dock was constructed here under Napoleon’s orders in 1811, but the flow of merchandise in and out of Antwerp and across established ocean trading routes, follows the same essential pattern it has for centuries. 

This Port also remains - as it’s always been – a repository of stories that shine a light on how the world works. Stories which tell us about what we consume, where it comes from, who profits from it, who doesn’t. 

The rows of stacked timber stretching off into the distance, the metal containers packed to the brim with wood, the hulking great logs which dwarf the men in high-vis jackets shifting them around with forklift trucks, also tell a story. And it isn’t uniformly happy. 

The timber we see this morning is overwhelmingly from Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic (CAR) – and more broadly, the Congo Basin rainforest which spans those countries. The Congo Basin is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, home to the world’s second biggest reservoir of carbon in vegetation, and it directly helps support the livelihoods of more than 40 million people, many living in extreme poverty. 

The provenance of the wood is clear from the writing on it, which along with numbers and other patterns, signifies its legality under the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR). 

This flagship anti-illegal logging legislation, which came into force in 2013, requires EU operators to conduct due diligence to ensure that there is negligible risk of the wood they import being illegally logged. We are not here to investigate breaches of the EUTR, but to get a sense of how it works at this key stage in timbers’ journey from tropical rainforest to the European buyer. 

But it doesn’t take long before we see a consignment of timber whose markings stop us in our tracks. 

Crimes against forests and people 

Earlier this year the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released undercover footage exposing (in their words), “the worst offender of crimes committed against the forests and the people of Gabon”: the Chinese company, Wan Chuan Timber Sarl (WCTS). 

The footage showed WCTS’s deputy director shamelessly explaining how illegality is at the heart of the company’s operations: how the company plans to overharvest its forest concession on a colossal scale, how it conceals the illegal logging operations it runs outside of its authorised area, and how its managers developed a complex scheme to launder its profits. 

WCTS manages more than 150,000 hectares of forest in Gabon. In July 2017 a civil complaint  was filed against the company over illegal logging and evading millions of dollars of taxes by the NGO Conservation Justice. The company’s dismal record is easy to find for anyone willing to look. 

So it is shocking to see a large cargo of precious tropical hardwood Padouk timber sitting in broad daylight in the port, with ‘Made in Gabon’ and ‘WCTS’ emblazoned in red paint on it. 

After photographing the timber for evidence and alerting various concerned parties when we return from the port, the wheels of action swiftly turn. 

The media picks up the story. Customs block the timber, which, it transpires, was imported by the Belgian company, Compagnie du Bois Anvers, who are placed under investigation for suspected violations of the EUTR. The company claims that their relationship with WCTS ended in 2018. The EIA says that our discovery is no anomaly, however. 

Its director of forest campaigns, Lisa Handy, maintains that WCTS has been exporting timber to Europe every two months for four years. “Every WCTS shipment is illegal and involves elements of corruption, tax evasion, bribes and over-exploitation of tropical forest,” she says. 

Filip De Jaeger, the Deputy General Manager of Fedustria, the Belgian federation of textile, wood and furniture industries, says they immediately informed their members of the issues with WTCS, and took the case up with Compagnie du Bois Anvers (who are not a Fedustria member). 

And on August 8, after two years of stalling - and very likely prompted by the wave of bad publicity WTCS attracted - a tribunal in Gabon finally reached a decision in the civil case against the company in Gabon, finding it guilty of logging outside its concession area and issuing it with a fine. 

The way ahead 

The WCTS case underlines the obstacles those tasked with enforcing the EUTR face. 

Among them, says De Jaeger, is that carrying out due diligence can vary widely from one country to another, with operators finding it difficult to track developments in some sourcing countries. 

“Due diligence is not an exact science, nor is the procedure 100 per cent fixed. Importers would expect that authorities give clear guidelines on how it is be carried out,” he says. 

Wiet Raets, Policy Officer at Belgium’s Ministry for Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, the country’s competent authority for enforcing the EUTR, echoes this. 

Due diligence, he says, involves “a certain margin of interpretation, and it is not obvious for both operators and competent authorities to deal with.” As such, he adds: “It’s a major challenge coordinating it at European level and to arrive at a uniform implementation.” 

This is something, Raets maintains, that the European Commission’s Expert Group on FLEGT/EUTR has strongly focused on in recent years, and that should improve when observers are included in this group. 

More rigorous enforcement, Raets says, could also come from scientific advances in identifying timber - such as DNA analysis, mass spectrometry and wood anatomy - which will assist operators to achieve due diligence and allow competent authorities to uncover fraud. He also says that having sufficient staff in all Member States will help reach a level-playing field and strengthen implementation. 

Raets and De Jaeger agree that there are loopholes in the EUTR which need closing. 

For instance, according to De Jaeger, extending the scope of the Regulation to all wood or wood-containing products “would close any loopholes that may exist, for example, when wood comes into the EU within products from importing countries that do not have specific rules or regulations in place, such as sofas with a wood frame from China.” 

A 2018 EU public survey reinforces this point: 72 per cent of respondents said that the current scope of the EUTR is inadequate to achieve its objectives. 

One European timber importer we spoke to, however, identifies a broader problem:  the rampant illegality he says exists among many operators outside the EU, which, according to him, undercuts his efforts, as well as his colleagues’, to achieve better practices. 

"Focusing negative criticism only on the EU will not solve the problem," he argues. "Timber will go increasingly to countries outside the EU. We must encourage EU importers to do their jobs in the right way, which in turn will encourage the good producers in the supplying countries." 

The EUTR nevertheless remains a strong tool in the fight against the illegal timber trade, says Łukasz Walter, a lawyer at ClientEarth, the environmental law charity. He adds: “Unfortunately, it is unevenly enforced in different Member States. It should be a priority to ensure that the penalties for infringements to the EUTR are dissuasive in all EU Member States and that NGOs have access to justice in EUTR-related cases. The scope of products covered by the EUTR should also be expanded. In April 2018, the European Commission finalised their public consultation on the EUTR product scope, and we hope to see concrete steps taken to response to this soon.” 

It's clear that without such improvements, cases like the one we stumbled upon involving WCTS  - which, after all, is just one of many  to be exposed in recent years – will inevitably recur, and illegal timber will still find its way onto the European market, and into the making of our homes, buildings, furniture, and much more. 

The cost of this will be entrenched corruption, as reputable timber operators are squeezed out of business, cash-starved countries are deprived of tax revenues, and income and livelihoods are stolen from local communities. All the while greater damage is inflicted on the environment, including intensifying the climate emergency. 

Also find "This Land is Ours" in the Our Forests Our Lives report. 

Indra van Gisbergen is a Development Aid Campaigner at Fern.

(c) Photos by Indra van Gisbergen

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