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Ridding the US marketplace of tainted timber

Thursday, 29 September 2016 16:04 GMT

Wood for framing new homes is unloaded at a subdivision in Damascus, Maryland September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lax enforcement and opaque supply chains let too many products slip through the cracks

Think about the number of wood products you encounter every day. The frame of your bed. The floors of your home. The stick you use to stir your coffee. Have you ever considered where these wood products come from?

If you haven’t, maybe you should.   

Last year the US imported more than $50 billion worth of wood products made from trees cut around the world. Our consumption of wood is helping prop up a global logging industry that is ruining lives, destroying rainforests, and driving the planet toward catastrophic climate change.

Papua New Guinean community activist Paul Pavol knows better than anyone what’s at stake. In 2010, he was forced into a struggle against the world’s largest tropical logging company, with his village’s existence at stake. His story is also more closely linked to the US timber trade than you might think.

Papua New Guinea, or PNG, is a mountainous Pacific island nation larger than California and home to the third largest tropical rainforest on Earth.  It’s a place of incredible diversity. Its people speak over 800 distinct languages. Its forests contain 7% of the world’s plant and animal species. Some 85% of its people live off of what they can grow or collect from forests, rivers and the sea.

Pavol is one of these people. He and his wife Janet live in the isolated district of Pomio where for generations their community has depended on the rainforests for food and clean water, medicinal plants, materials for building their homes, everything. And then six years ago, a multinational logging company arrived with heavy machinery in tow. The company, Rimbunan Hijau, told Paul and his community that the government had given it permission to cut down their forests and plant oil palm on their land.

By PNG law, communities like Paul and Janet’s have legal ownership over the land they live on and use. But when they tried to speak out and prevent Rimbunan Hijau from leveling their forest, police officers paid by the company responded by beating up and arbitrarily arresting villagers. The people of Pomio now live in fear and watch helplessly as the company makes a fortune tearing down and selling their forest. A legal challenge filed by community members has been stalled in the courts since 2014 while logging continues unabated. 

Pomio is sadly not the only place where community property rights are disregarded, even when protected by law.  Communities like Paul’s across PNG and around the world are being displaced by a tropical logging industry that destroys their environment and strips them of their land. The way timber is internationally traded and used, however, implicates us in this corrupt system.

Almost all the timber that is being stripped from Paul’s community’s land, like 90% of PNG’s timber exports, is exported to China. There, it enters complicated manufacturing supply chains to be transformed into wood products.

Logs from Papua New Guinea can be sold back and forth among traders in China before moving to factories that turn it into a primary material and then a finished product like wood flooring. The product then passes through distributors before getting sold to the company that provides it to consumers.

None of these transactions are monitored in China in a way that is transparent. Many of the finished products are eventually exported, and the U.S. is China’s largest customer. More than a quarter of the wood products we import come from China – $15 billion worth.

The U.S. has been a global leader in both recognizing and trying to stamp out the trade in illegal timber. The U.S. Lacey Act was amended in 2008 to make it illegal to import products made with timber harvested in violation of source country laws. Under the Lacey Act, companies importing wood products into the US are obliged to know where their wood comes from and take steps to ensure it was harvested legally.

China lacks a law like the Lacey Act obliging its companies to use only legal timber. China is the largest importer of tropical timber, and a lot of it is thought to be illegal. The Department of Justice recently fined a major U.S. flooring importer $13 million for importing flooring manufactured in China from wood logged illegally in the Russian far east. And this may be the tip of the iceberg. 

US companies should use extra caution to know where and how the wood was sourced, both to ensure they are compliant with the Lacey Act and to avoid wood linked to human rights abuses and environmental devastation of the kind Paul and his community are experiencing. The US government needs to put more resources into investigating potential Lacey Act violations, particularly involving complex supply chains. Neither effort is taking place.

It is left to consumers and investors to ask questions about where companies are getting their wood and what measures are in place to ensure it isn’t connected with illegal logging or other abuses. This is about more than enforcing laws—as important as that is.  It’s about our moral obligation to ensure the wood products we use every day are not ruining lives and driving the destruction of rainforests.

Alex Soros is the founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, which gives an annual award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism. Paul Pavol is this year’s Alexander Soros Foundation Award recipient.