Improving timber supply chains will help unlock sustainable production and consumption this International Day of Forests
To tackle deforestation and its associated impacts on climate and biodiversity loss, ensuring timber supply chain legality is vital
Denis Mahonghol, TRAFFIC’s Director in Central Africa
Home to the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, the Congo Basin, makes up one of the most important wilderness areas left on Earth
It is critical for climate change mitigation and a vital habitat breaming with biodiversity, of approximately 10,000 species of tropical plants, of which 30 percent are unique to the region. Timber trade in the Congo Basin is an essential source of income, integral to national economies, and provides a livelihood to local communities.
Ensuring the sustainable production and consumption of timber in the Congo Basin, therefore, is paramount. Yet a surging demand for tropical wood, primarily from Asia but also from Europe and America, exacerbated by corruption, resource mismanagement, and ineffective regulation, is making it all too easy for criminals to harvest and trade in threatened timber illegally. It is estimated that forestry crimes including corporate crimes and illegal logging account for US51 – 152 billion annually worldwide1.
Since 2009, the volumes of Central African timber exports to China have increased by 60%. The country is now the top export destination for the Congo Basin timber. Beyond the international demand for tropical timber, there are additional challenges of domestic markets within the countries in the Congo Basin. For example, artisanal logging to support the local demand for house construction and furniture is not regulated and this use of timber contributes to the pressures of international trade.
What does this mean for the Congo Basin? This ever-increasing demand has put the Congo Basin rainforest and its vibrant species under threat from unsustainable and illegal logging. It is possible that without tackling the already prevailing unsustainable harvest and trade, the increasing demand for tropical timber could eventually lead to the disappearance of species. To stand a chance in countering this threat, first, we need to better understand the three pillars of the timber supply chain: the source countries, the transit of timber and who is buying it.
Understanding how timber is sourced and forests are managed is a critical first step, starting from working with local community networks, including community forestry operators, who manage the forests and benefit from legal exports. As a result of these conversations, it is clear that sustainable forest management should be involved in decision-making not only on behalf of the forests’ health but also the well-being of people who depend on them. Local communities play a critical role in being the guardian of resources they owned by customary law and have some rights to forest areas put out to tender. TRAFFIC works with local partners and community networks in Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo to assist community forestry operators to operate and export legally, increasing income while managing forests sustainably. Simultaneously, we work with the private sector to leverage the improved practices in harvesting and trade legality, sustainability, and traceability.
Governments should continue to work with local communities, civil society, NGOs and the private sector to improve business practices and increase transparency and accountability for the type of wood they use.
Illegal harvest and trade of tropical timber involves the breach of national and/or international laws and regulations. Illegal logging may be linked to organised crime and various forms of corruption. It may lead to the loss of government revenues, unfair business competition, unsustainable forest management, habitat degradation and loss, species populations’ declines and extinction, and the displacement of people.
Learning how timber moves from source countries to end consumers is vital, including understanding the challenges customs agencies face in identifying illegal timber from legal. Our research in Cameroon and the Republic of Congo recorded challenges including the limited knowledge of forestry laws and regulations, and the limited availability of specialists in timber species identification among customs officials.
While setting the groundwork to ensure robust national legality frameworks are in place is important, enabling enforcement agencies to verify timber legality and track revenue from legitimate forest sources is a next step that must be completed. Traceability systems and tools are tangible instruments for this. TRAFFIC piloted a timber tracker tool in Tanzania, which was such a success that today it is fully embedded in the forestry department’s everyday operations. It supported law enforcement’s effective and efficient controls and contributed to reducing opportunities for corruption. Based on this experience, we’re planning to pilot and localise the tool in the Congo Basin countries as well.
Improving the scrutiny of financial flows within the timber sector is another critical step. Criminals often exploit weaknesses in the financial arena such as cash in hand, or other mechanisms related to the local transfer of large amounts of money. This can also hide money laundering activities. This is a major challenge for global financial institutions, but there are vital steps forward. Earlier this month, TRAFFIC launched a toolkit with a focus on the trade between Africa and Asia with our partners at WWF, UK Serious and Organised Crime Network in collaboration with Themis. The toolkit is helping financial institutions to address and report suspicious transactions connected to illegal wildlife trade.
Finally, the last pillar in any supply chain is consumption, where we focus on organisations at the market end of timber products supply chains. We’ve worked to develop a sustainability code of conduct with the China Timber & Wood Product Distribution Association (CTWPDA) which covers the legal sourcing of timber for the private sector, codes of practice for Rosewood, and developed public procurement policies that support a review of guidelines of China Environmental Labelling Certification on wood and forest product.
Meanwhile our team is supporting law enforcement in Viet Nam to understand timber legality and implement the Forestry Law, in close collaboration with countries supplying vast amounts of the timber, including those in the Congo Basin. This is proving successful and the Vietnamese government is now exploring options with countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the sustainable management and trade of tropical timbers from this incredibly rich and biodiverse area.
What is clear from our work so far to leverage legality along the timber supply chain between the Congo Basin and China is that sustainable timber trade, from sourcing through to consumption, cannot survive without a comprehensive approach. Governments must commit to funding these measures with adequate resources and assistance made available to developing countries.
We know from a report released by UNESCO, WRI, IUCN in October 2021 that human activities such as the degradation of the forests through agricultural conversion, unsustainable harvesting, and illegal logging are driving factors of deforestation (the second leading cause of carbon emissions). So while The Global Forest Finance Pledge promises $12 billion over the next five years to protect forests, peatlands, and other critical carbon stores, with at least $1.5 billion going towards efforts in the Congo Basin, this international pledge must include a focus on curbing illegal logging and improving the sustainability of timber supply chains – all the way from source, through transit and to end consumer.
Conscious that the world population will keep increasing, it is anticipated that the demand and use of timber and its products will follow the same trends; but to ‘inspire for the future’ as this year’s International Day of Forests theme reminds us, we must continue to the momentum to ensure sustainable production and consumption of timber for the sake of the people and biodiversity that rely on the forests, but also the planet.
TRAFFIC is working in the Congo Basin on the sustainable procurement of legal timber to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
NICFI is administered by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment in collaboration with Norad – The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The initiative supports bilateral agreements with forest countries, multinational organisations and civil society.