Evidence compiled by Timberleaks reveals that French companies are importing logs from dictatorships, conflict states and some of the most controversial logging companies in Africa.
The port of La Pallice, near the pretty medieval city of La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast, is the incongruous bottleneck in a supply chain that stretches into the ravaged rainforests of West and Central Africa.
On a warm morning in May this year, Timberleaks found logs from two Liberian suppliers known to owe the Liberian government millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, one of which is also disguising its beneficial owner, in violation of Liberian law. We also found logs from a supplier that has beaten, raped and murdered villagers protesting its operations.
Wood is stored in the open at La Pallice by the specialist importers and agents based there, awaiting sale. On our visit, Timberleaks documented numerous batches of high-risk African logs at the port. This included logs from two highly controversial suppliers in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): SODEFOR and COTREFOR.
SODEFOR has been the subject of repeated allegations of illegality and human rights abuses by non-government groups in the recent past. In 2006 and again in 2011, local people protesting failures by SODEFOR to abide by their social agreements were beaten, raped and murdered.
In addition to numerous earlier illegalities and abuses, a recent report by Global Witness exposed how COTREFOR is linked to Lebanese who have been sanctioned by the US government for funding ‘terrorist’ organisation Hezbullah. The COTREFOR logs Timberleaks saw at the port were marked with the initials ‘AB’, as were the Liberian logs. Angot Bois, a local importer, has previously been accused by both Greenpeace and Global Witness of receiving logs from COTREFOR, but when contacted by Timberleaks denied that any of the logs we had seen marked with their initials were owned by them.
A 2014 study by the respected think-tank Chatham House concluded that it was “unlikely that any of the DRC’s timber production could plausibly meet EU due diligence requirements”. Yet French companies have somehow been able to continue their multi-million dollar business with the country, with shipments being landed every month.
Logs from the Central African Republic (CAR), where exports to the EU are known have helped fund warring rebel groups in recent years, were also on display.
Violent conflict has raged in CAR since 2012, turning the country into a ‘failed state’. In 2015, an in-depth investigation demonstrated how revenues from sales of timber to Europe had flowed to armed rebel groups responsible for terrible human rights abuses, and named five European companies which had continued to trade CAR timber during the worst of the conflict, of which four were French.
While international peacekeepers have helped keep a lid on the worst of the violence since the end of 2015, armed ex-militia men continue to roam the country, killing, raping and extorting. A recent UN report found that militias were continuing to fund their existence through the illegal exploitation of natural resources such as diamonds and timber, and warned that large-scale conflict was likely to recur if their continued existence was not urgently addressed. Timberleaks documented CAR logs at La Pallice carrying the logo of importer Compagnie Atlantique des Bois et Dérivés (CABD). The company did not respond to a request from Timberleaks to explain how it could be sure these logs were EUTR compliant and not contributing to conflict.
Independent sources confirm that large volumes of logs from particularly high-risk companies and countries in Africa continue to be imported into France.
Data seen by Timberleaks reveal that more than 95 per cent of the logs exported from DRC to France during the first nine months of 2016 originated from either SODEFOR or COTREFOR. In the first six months of 2017, French companies took delivery of more than €1.2 million of logs from war-torn CAR, and a further €1.1 million from Equatorial Guinea, a pariah state run by one of Africa’s most brutal dictators.
In May 2017, Timberleaks tracked a large cargo vessel called WAF Motion as it stopped at ports in western and northern France and offloaded a shipment of more than 2500 cubic metres of logs from Equatorial Guinea. The ship specialises in shuttling timber from Africa to Europe. It plies a circular route, picking up logs, lumber and veneer in the major timber exporting countries of Central and West Africa and delivering them to a handful of major bulk timber ports in Portugal, France and Belgium, before returning for more.
Cargo vessel WAF Motion, unloading logs from Equatorial Guinea at Bayonne in France, May 2017