U.K.-based group claims self-regulation won't stop China's role in illegal logging

As China faces increasing international scrutiny for its role in driving illegal logging around the globe, an environmental nonprofit charges that the country's newly proposed measures to curb the practice won't be enough to keep forests standing.

The U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, a lobbying group, today published its formal comment on the Chinese government's draft guidelines for forest product companies trading in other nations.

According to an English-language draft of the guidelines shared by EIA, they are intended by the Chinese government to "meet the demands of the international community for the sustainable trade and investment of forest products in order to promote the legitimate, sustainable management and utilization of global forest resources."

The draft outlines best practices for Chinese companies working abroad, including respecting local laws and communities; protecting rare, threatened and endangered species; and avoiding the purchase of illegally harvested timber.

But EIA says "a regulatory regime established on enforceable laws" rather than "a voluntary approach reliant on self-regulation" is the only sure way to ensure these practices are carried out. It argues in its comments that the guidelines "are skewed to the operations of Chinese enterprises overseas, and do not regulate importers of illegally-logged timber into China."


'A change in attitude,' but not in action?

In response to restrictions on logging within China and soaring demand from various construction and manufacturing industries, the timber trade there has grown at a breakneck pace over the past several decades. China is now the world's No. 1 importer of wood products, according to the International Trade Centre.

Charles Barber, senior manager of the World Resources Institute's Forest Legality Alliance, agreed with EIA's assessment of the draft guidelines, saying that "by itself, a voluntary standard like this is very difficult to enforce unless there is some bite to it within China."

But Barber, formerly an international forest policy negotiator with the U.S. State Department, argued that coming up with one-size-fits-all legislation to prevent illegal wood from arriving in China would be enormously difficult to implement.

"They have a legitimate issue in China -- it's a huge industry," Barber said. "They import raw material from dozens and dozens of countries."

Although China strongly resisted enacting any measures to prevent illegal wood trade as recently as 2007, the nation has since crafted a voluntary legality verification system for timber imports and signed a series of memorandum-of-understanding agreements on illegal logging with the various other nations it trades with, among other measures.

"Bit by bit, there's been a change in their attitude, and they've begun to see they need to do something about it," Barber said.

Black-market wood trade

EIA is far from satisfied, however, arguing all of China's current efforts have been largely ineffective. In a 2012 analysis, the group claimed that China is the world's No. 1 importer of illegal timber, bringing in an estimated $6.9 billion in black-market wood products in 2011 alone.

In January 2013, the China Timber & Wood Products Distribution Association, the country's biggest timber trade group, responded to EIA's report, calling it "biased and one-sided" and arguing that there is no connection between the international growth of illegal logging and the nation's demand.

But EIA is not the only environmental group to have raised alarm at the impact of China's growing timber consumption.

The Center for International Forestry Research recently published a paper on China's forest trade practices in Mozambique. Today, over 90 percent of Mozambican timber exports end up in China, CIFOR stated, and based on its analysis of the African nation's timber export laws and Chinese market forces, the group concluded that it's "reasonable to assume that the quantity of illegally exported timber is of significant proportions."

EIA's own recent analysis of the Chinese-Mozambican timber trade found that in 2012, Chinese companies imported up to 215,654 cubic meters of timber illegally, 48 percent of its total imports from the African country.

"Such crimes are costing Mozambique tens of millions of dollars a year in lost tax revenues -- funds desperately needed in what is the world's fourth least developed nation," the report states.

America and Europe have tightened regulations to stem illegal logging over the past several years. In 2008, the U.S. government amended the Lacey Act to include products made from illegally logged woods. Shortly afterward, the European Union enacted its own law banning and punishing the import of illegal timber (ClimateWire, Sept. 30, 2013).

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