Potential and provisos for China’s ‘anti-illegal timber’ forest law

Photo timquijano

NGOs and other forest and timber sector stakeholders have welcomed China’s addition of a prohibition on buying illegal timber in its forest law. There are question marks about enforcement of the new provision, but it is being seen as potentially influencing the forest and timber sector practices of suppliers to China and dealing a blow against the international illegal wood trade. It would mean that over 80% of current total international tropical timber trade would be destined for countries with regulatory measures to eliminate illegal trade.

The final version of the revised forest law is expected to be introduced before China hosts the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming in October, but a draft was put out for review in October 2019.

A large part of the changes focus on China’s domestic forestry and timber industries. It includes provisions on forest tenure and lays down the objective of management of ‘public-welfare’ and commercial forest as being a healthy, high quality and effective forestry ecology system. It strengthens protection of China’s forest resources and bars cutting of natural forest. Its aim is also to promote an increase in Chinese forest cover and it imposes new controls on cutting volumes, licenses and timber transport.

It is article 65 of the law that focuses on illegal timber. It states that: “Timber trading and processing enterprises shall establish ledgers to record input and output of raw materials. Purchasing, processing, or transporting timber that is known to derive from illegal sources, such as illegally or indiscriminately logged forest, by any work units or individuals, are prohibited”.

“It’s potentially huge, a real game-changer for both the future of the planet’s forests and the battle against dangerous climate change,” said Faith Doherty, Forests Campaign Leader at NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency. “China is the world’s biggest timber importer and, for almost 20 years, its demand for raw materials for its vast wood-processing industry has been a massive driver of illegal logging around the world, especially in South-East Asia and Africa.”

Other commentators said that effective implementation of this new provision would require  closer coordination between Chinese customs and other government agencies than currently operates. “In general the prohibition carries potential risks of difficult enforcement, including not applying to traders, and low penalties,” said Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy at natural resources NGO Global Witness. She also said that the burden of proof in cases of alleged illegal timber would be on government departments, making it more difficult to secure prosecutions. The law also did not go far enough in establishing a legal framework requiring due diligence on the part of timber importers and traders, such as those operating in other markets, including the US, the EU and Australia.

Others, however, see it as a significant move in the right direction. China and the EU have been liaising on timber legality and market requirements for 11 years via their Bilateral Co-ordination Mechanism initiative, with the clear ambition from the EU perspective to bring China’s enormous trading muscle to bear in the war on illegal timber. “In all the discussions, it has been clear the Chinese authorities are aware that mandatory rules on legality of timber imports are the missing link,” said Dr Zhang Junzuo, Team Leader of the UK-China Collaboration on Forest Investment and Trade programme (InFIT).

The International Tropical Timber Technical Association (ATIBT) also responded positively to the forest law revision. “We’ve made great efforts to build a dialogue with Chinese operators working in Central Africa on the future of the sector and the need for sustainable management of the Congo Basin forests,” said ATIBT Managing Director Benoît Jobbé-Duval. “Our Chinese partners said development of the forestry law was important, even if means required to implement it would perhaps take a little time to mobilise it. We hope its implementation can be carried out effectively and within a reasonable timeframe. In the meantime, we will continue cooperation with our partners.”

ATIBT and STTC founder and funder IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative said that they would also closely monitor implementation of the forest law revisions.

According to the 2018 Annual Report of the EU FLEGT Independent Market Monitor, 62% (US$25.6 billion) of the total value (US$41.2 billion) of recorded tropical wood exports worldwide were destined for countries with regulatory measures to eliminate illegal trade, including the EU, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea, the USA and Viet Nam. The value going to unregulated markets was $15.6 billion, with 55%, or $8.6 billion, imported by China.

If China could be included among them, markets regulated for legality would account for over 80% of total international tropical timber trade.