Morley defends voluntary partnerships on timber imports

The recently agreed EU Regulation to create voluntary agreements aimed at reducing imports of illegal timber was strongly upheld by Environment Minister Elliot Morley when he gave evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.1 But NGOs criticised the legislation and the Government's assessment of timber certification schemes.

The Committee concluded its inquiry into sustainable timber in November with evidence from Mr Morley, who claimed the Regulation, which establishes a system of voluntary licensing agreements between timber-producing countries and the EU, was a major achievement for the UK's Presidency of the European Union.

In contrast, WWF campaigns director Andrew Lee told the Committee that the new system was "extremely weak and very disappointing". Greenpeace campaigns director John Sauven added: "If there is to be any chance of there being any sustainable trade you have got to stamp out the illegal trade."

Mr Sauven added that initiatives to boost the trade in sustainable timber, such as the certification schemes and standards approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, were being undermined by cheaper, illegally-logged products such as Chinese plywood.

WWF's Beatrix Richards claimed there are three main weaknesses in the scheme. The first is that it only applies to sawn timber and plywood and not to other products such as paper, which accounts for a quarter of illegal wood-based imports into the EU. The scheme could also be subverted by imports of illegal timber into the EU via third-party countries, especially China. Thirdly, it would be impossible to verify the partnership agreements because independent auditing was not mandatory.

Ms Richards concluded that the only option is to "make it a crime to import illegal timber into the EU."

John White, chief executive of the Timber Trade Federation, said it would support a ban on illegal timber.

Mr Morley accepted that an international ban on illegal timber was the ideal solution, but said this was "fraught with difficulties", not least because such a ban would need to be supported by a compulsory certification scheme to distinguish between legal and illegal timber. Otherwise, "you would be leaving yourself open to a challenge at the World Trade Organization," he added.

Mr Morley said the scheme's success could be measured by monitoring the annual growth in imported timber certified as sustainable and legal from countries under voluntary partnership agreements.

The Committee also heard criticism of the Government's central point of expertise on timber (CPET), which was established to advise departments on procuring legal and sustainable timber. The service's website went live in November.2

Two certification schemes, the forestry industry's Pan European Forestry Certification scheme and the North American Sustainable Forest Initiative were recently given Environment Department (DEFRA) approval after they were reassessed by the CPET (ENDS Report 368, pp 22-23).

Although WWF's Andrew Lee said it was a "good initiative", he said he had "grave cause for concern" over its assessment of certification schemes.

Saskia Ozinga, director of forest campaign group FERN, said a much more rigorous assessment was needed and that the CPET "only looks at a paper assessment and does not look at what is happening in the field." Greenpeace forest campaigner Nathan Argent claimed that the Finnish certification scheme, endorsed by the PEFC, certifies logging in environmentally sensitive areas and where the human rights of indigenous people were being abused.

In response, Martin Gale, forestry vice-president at Finnish paper company UPM-Kymmene and a PEFC UK board member, said the PEFC is "working within the legal system of the Finnish state and the Finnish state at the moment says, 'these are our lands and our trees and we are happy that PEFC is certifying what is going on.'"

Simon Fineman, chief executive of timber supplier Timbmet, described the FSC scheme as the "gold standard", but added that is was "very difficult for certain areas of the world to aspire to." He agreed there was a danger of confusion because of the number of schemes in the marketplace and said timber firms needed to "take the complexity out of it from the customer's point of view."