Shipments of lumber, furniture and other wood products sourced from the Asia-Pacific’s protected but dwindling forests are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually and on the increase. The introduction of enhanced customs checks in APEC could mark a turning point in efforts to combat this scourge.
Demand within APEC member economies, which account for half of the world’s forest cover and 80 per cent of global timber trade, underpins the industry’s black market. The ease with which unlawfully harvested cargo can move across borders and into the homes and offices of consumers is allowing illegal wood trade to flourish at great cost to the region.
The extent of the challenge has prompted APEC forestry, trade, customs and law enforcement officials meeting this week in Ho Chi Minh City, a major timber processing and trading center, to tighten customs controls against the flow of illegal goods within the sector.
“Trade in illegal wood is accelerating biodiversity loss and destabilizing forest-dependent communities around the Asia-Pacific,” explained Dr Nguyen Van Ha, Deputy General of Viet Nam’s Forestry Administration. “The economic consequences are significant.”
They include depriving economies of revenue derived from legal and sustainably managed forests, and undermining legitimate businesses by negatively affecting the price of legally harvested products. Spotting illegal wood before it goes to market is an underlying problem.
“Timber is hard for customs authorities to inspect and verify because of its diversity of species, types and names,” said Vu Ngoc Anh, Chair of the APEC Sub-Committee on Customs Procedures. “We are working in APEC to tackle knowledge and technology gaps at border checkpoints to improve capacity in the region to thwart illegal timber and wood product shipments,” continued Vu, who is also Deputy Director-General of Viet Nam Customs.
There are as many as 100,000 tree species worldwide. Officials are refining their targeting and forensic identification methods to more accurately and efficiently distinguish between legal and illegal wood at their borders—from taun flooring, rosewood furniture and ramin toys, paint brushes, blinds and billiard cues, to paper, sawdust and composite wood products.
“The importance of customs and enforcement agency cooperation in APEC to securing wood trade can’t be overstated,” said Jennifer Prescott, Assistant United States Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources and a co-sponsor of the project. “As illegal wood trade grows in sophistication, it is vital that we grow the sophistication of our tools to address it.”
This includes public-private coordination underway to align the region’s wood product certification programs, compliance and product legality monitoring approaches, and traceability systems—following the production and distribution networks that bring illegal timber to international markets.
Officials are also sharing guidance to inform their handling of these shipments upon discovery as well as to support more effective preventative action. They are focused on opening lines of communication to curb fake document use, bribery and corruption linked to high level perpetrators of illegal timber trade.
“Trust between all those monitoring the supply chain and enforcing laws is ultimately needed to reduce and eliminate illegal wood trade,” noted Davyth Stewart of INTERPOL's Environmental Security Program. “Without it, breakthroughs will remain elusive.”
“Customs are the first and last line of defence against timber smuggling, fraud and illegalities during export, re-export, transit and import but they can’t operate in a vacuum,” echoed Dr Federico López-Casero of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.
Ministers Responsible for Forestry from APEC economies will meet in Seoul, Korea on 30 October-1 November 2017 to advance and build upon these policy solutions.
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