Raising tropical sustainable timber profile an urgent task

Photo: Mark van Benthem, Probos

Reports on problems faced by European forest concession operators in Central and West Africa further underline the importance of efforts, including those of the STTC, to grow and diversify Europe’s market for sustainable tropical timber.

The 1-15 August edition of the International Tropical Timber Organisation’s  Timber Trade Market Report cites several developments as evidence of weakening European presence in the African timber sector.  These include the administrative receivership of France-based Rougier and subsequent sale of its Cameroon and Central African  Republic operations, Dutch-based Wijma’s disposal of four out of five of its Cameroon concessions and Italy-based Cora’s sale of a Gabon concession.

Immediate reasons for Europeans downsizing African operations, states the ITTO, include logistical issues at the Cameroon port of Douala and slow repayment by African governments of VAT on timber exports.  But longer-term structural market shifts are also involved.

“While these problems impact all operators, they’ve fallen particularly heavily on European-owned companies because of declining European consumption of tropical timber and low profitability of certified sustainable timber operations, which receive little or no market premium for higher operating costs,” says the report.

The decline in European tropical timber sales is attributed to continuing poor consumer environmental perceptions, declining availability of Europe’s most popular African species and growth in competition, including from engineered and modified wood and composites.

Overall latest data from the EU FLEGT Independent Market Monitor shows Europe’s share of African timber exports falling in the decade to 2017 from 49% to 21%. At the same time the proportion taken by China, which accepts a broader range of species and grades, rose from 25% to 57%. Moreover the report says that some anticipate a boost to Chinese African imports following its imposition of a 25% tariff on US hardwoods.

The ITTO quotes a blog by Alain Karsenty, CIRAD Research Director in which he describes these developments as part of a trend of structural change in the African timber industry, as “operations are reoriented away from Europe towards Asian markets”.  He is also cited by Mongabay pointing out that no Asian operator had yet ‘sought to become FSC-certified’

However, the ITTO report says that the long term potential of an African timber business model based on certification should not be dismissed out of hand. It highlights efforts to ‘bolster awareness of the benefits of sustainable tropical timber’, such as the ATIBT’s ‘Fair & Precious’ brand marketing campaign and the work of the STTC. The latter said the report, was communicating the economic, social and environmental benefits of certified tropical forest operations. “STTC is also working to expand the European market for certified tropical forest products by developing pan-industry partnerships, promotion of lesser known tropical species, and provision of technical advice,” it stated.

The report also points out that there has been some recovery in solid tropical wood consumption in the EU and that the FSC and PEFC had increased the appeal of their certification schemes by aligning chain of custody and legal conformance standards to EUTR. PAFC Gabon had also awarded its first certificate, potentially paving the way for lower cost African certification models.