“Traders will be prosecuted”

US justice officials are taking their fight against illicit timber to China and Russia, where they want to boost awareness of the risks of breaking import laws. Jenny Johnson reports.

In the untamed landscapes of eastern Siberia, where the last few hundred wild Amur tigers live, one of the world’s rare remaining tracts of intact forest is shrinking. It isn’t hard to see why: the recent exposure of mafia-run, government-backed illicit timber extraction in the area has uncovered both the extent of illegal trade, and the damage it inflicts. Keystone species – such as the prized Korean pine, which provides shelter for tigers and nuts for other animals through the winter – are being eliminated.

The region offers one example of a biologically sensitive area where precious forest reserves are being harvested with increasing vigour – and one of the reasons the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is mounting a new education campaign in Russia and China: it aims to warn the forestry industries in these two nations of the growing risk of criminal prosecutions under laws against importing illegal wood and wood products. The European Union and Australia have also recently enacted legislation to ban such imports, ramping up the international effort to stop forest destruction.

More than half of all timber in Russia is suspected to be sourced illegally, according to the impact assessment prepared to support the EU’s new regulation, which will go into effect in 2013. The costs are wide ranging, including human rights abuses associated with organised crime groups, billions of dollars a year in lost government revenue, and large-scale environmental damage and biodiversity loss that has global implications. Russian forests – making up 22% of the world’s total forested area – play important roles in regulating climate and serving as a carbon sink.

The United States, the world’s largest wood importer and consumer of wood products, has had in place strict rules against imports of illegal timber since December 2008, when Congress passed an amendment to the 100-year-old Lacey Act, banning commerce in illegally sourced plants and plant-products. The reasons are clear enough:advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that 10% of annual wood consumption in the US in 2006 was from illegal sources, though statistics are scarce.The list of wood products subject to the provisions of the law has been slowly expanding – and so too has DOJ enforcement activity.

This spring, the US justice department held four workshops with industry and government officials from Russia and China in Suifenhe, a Chinese border town that serves as the single largest railway juncture for wood coming in from Russia. “The sense was that Chinese wood producers were less knowledgeable about the Lacey Act [than they should be],” said Tom Swegle, an attorney in the Environment and Natural Recourses Division of the DOJ, adding that the experience showed the importance of further exposing Chinese industry to information about the requirements.

China is the leading importer of Russian wood, much of which has been harvested illegally. Chinese producers who use such wood to make finished products could be held liable under the Lacey Act once the products enter the United States, if the wood is found to have been illegally sourced in Russia.

Rocky Piaggione, senior counsel in DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Prosecution Office, led similar training events for industry and government officials in far eastern Russia in May. These were “part of many workshops held around the world to raise awareness of the [2008] amendments to the Lacey Act,” he said, adding that they were intended to “alert industry that if they knowingly send to the US illegally obtained wood products, we will seize the goods and prosecute criminally.” More workshops are expected soon.

So far, the relatively new requirements for timber have not led to criminal proceedings, only seizures and civil penalties. In order to pursue criminal prosecution, the US government must prove intent on the part of the importer. But Piaggione pointed to a natural evolution in the enforcement in the law: the long-standing prohibition against wildlife trafficking under the Lacey Act “brings cases every day”, he said, and it is “fair to say” that as time goes on, and more information about the Lacey Act spreads, we will start to see criminal prosecutions under the timber rules.

The US efforts come as other major consumers of wood products – most notably the European Union and Australia – are also ramping up activity to combat illegal logging. The EU is in the process of implementing a law passed late in 2010 to crack down on imports of illegally harvested wood. The law requires due effort on the part of importers to establish the legality of the origin of wood products.

Australia, meanwhile, is an example of a consumer country without any regulatory curbs on imports of wood products. The system instead relies on industry self-regulation, which the government has deemed a failure. The legislature is currently debating passage of legal requirements under the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2011. If passed, this will direct new policies penalising the import of illegal wood. “Timber is imported into Australia without any requirement for verifying its legality, other than through voluntary industry measures,” says the June 23 draft of the prohibition bill. It is thought illegally harvested timber accounts for around 9% of Australia’s wood imports.

In order for the verification procedures of the consumer countries to work effectively, producer countries will also have to step up efforts to stop illegal logging, by putting in place control and tracking systems. Russia is currently amending its forest laws to tighten management provisions that were weakened several years ago and many experts say are largely responsible for the illegal trade today. Participants at a workshop in May in Khabarovsk, located close to the border with China, including the World Bank, WWF and others, concluded that “the current forest governance and control system in Russia not only does not prevent illegal practices, but often provokes them,” according to a June 9 statement about the workshop from EU-funded programme Improving Forest Law Enforcement & Governance.

In addition to new laws, Russia is reaching out to the Chinese government to help stem the flow of illegal wood, according to Piaggione: “Russia recognises it’s not going to solve the problem alone. They need cooperation from China.” As well as customs officials from each side meeting at the workshops, the two countries have established permanent working groups on the development and use of forest resources in Russian regions close to the border with China. “We are paying close attention to cooperation with Russia in combating illegal logging and the illegal timber trade,” China’s assistant foreign minister Cheng Guoping told the Russian official newswire service Interfax on July 14.

A leaked diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Moscow showed a broad awareness and concern on the part of officials about the extent of illegal logging in Russia and the large role the American consumer market inevitably plays in fueling the trade. “Given the high percentage of illegally harvested timber, it is particularly worrisome for the United States that 50% of soft wood and 90% of hardwood harvested in the Russian far east and Siberia ends up in the United States as finished goods after being processed in China,” the 2009 cable says, citing WWF as the source of the figures.

The large market in the United States for Russian wood – imported via China – and the potential for more aggressive enforcement of existing American law is a growing point of engagement for the countries. “The US is interested in discussing this subject with Russia since they are the first consumer of refined products of Russian timber, some of which have questionable origin. China is another important player as it has lately become the major importer of timber from Russia, primarily from the Russian far east,” the EU forest programme said in its statement.

The combined efforts of the major consumer countries to heighten the risk of trade in illegal wood and wood products stand to create a major new incentive to push government and industry in Russia and China to improve forest governance. The stakes are high, notably for the famed Amur tiger, which depends on vast tracts of mature forest to survive.

Jenny Johnson is a journalist based in St Petersburg, Russia.

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