Six years after EU law introduced to curb illegal timber imports, the trade in suspect wood from Africa continues as French authorities fail to act, new Timberleaks research finds.
The apparently random numbers, embossed lettering and colourful symbols sketched on huge tree trunks spread out in the industrial French port of La Pallice are hard to decipher.
But these markings, the timber industry’s shorthand, give clues to the timber’s origin and reveal some unpleasant truths.
During a May visit to the port on the outskirts of La Rochelle, Timberleaks found logs originating from Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and elsewhere linked to firms implicated in illegal deforestation, bribing governments and environmental abuses.
It is an alarming snapshot of the continuing trade in high-risk wood into Europe.
Trade data shows EU timber imports from CAR, DRC and Liberia combined worth €39 million in 2018 – a near 12 per cent increase on the previous year. French imports alone totalled nearly €9 million.
At a time of mass climate protests and when most Europeans say they are concerned about buying goods which fuel deforestation, our research exposes how EU authorities are struggling to enforce the landmark 2013 EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) and address the flow of suspect timber into places like La Rochelle and beyond.
Piled high on tarmac at the mouth of the Bay of Biscay, the tropical timber and its unique markings demonstrate the ongoing collaboration between French firms and suspect exporters.
French importers Angot Bois, Abex Bois Exotiques, F. Jammes and Tropical Wood Trading (TWT) were all identified by Timberleaks as among those sourcing timber from the Congo Basin or Liberia.
Angot Bois and TWT, both registered at the same La Rochelle address, are purchasing wood from Congolese companies with links to illegality and deforestation.
DRC lost 481,000 hectares of primary rainforest in 2018 and Industrie Forestière du Congo (IFCO) – its second biggest timber exporter and an Angot Bois client - is likely helping drive this. Eight per cent of all the carbon stored in forests globally is stored in the forests of DRC. It is the fourth largest carbon reservoir in the world.
Formed in 2018, IFCO is the new incarnation of COTREFOR – a company plagued by previous allegations of illegal logging and its ties to Congo Futur, the Lebanese-run firm whose owners were identified by US authorities as having links to the terrorist organisation, Hezbollah.
The change has altered little. IFCO’s logging activities were suspended by authorities for several months in 2018 after it failed to pay taxes, adhere to labour laws and ignored land agreements with locals, a 2019 Global Witness briefing stated. In 2018, researchers exposed IFCO for conducting illegal logging outside of approved areas.
Notwithstanding these revelations, our research indicates that Angot Bois - which purchased 333 cubic metres of Khaya logs from IFCO in August 2018 – is still continuing a buying relationship with the firm.
IFCO is also linked to an exporter used by TWT in La Rochelle. Etablissements Motema was awarded two concessions, including one totalling 250,000 hectares in 2011. The company is controlled by a DRC admiral and is understood to use IFCO to conduct its logging activities in the region.
EU purchases from neighbouring CAR are persisting too. The EU imported 65 per cent extra timber from 2017 to 2018, with 22,200 tonnes arriving last year. Alongside major buyers in Portugal and Belgium, France purchased €4.5 million of CAR timber in 2018 – 54 per cent more than in 2017.
Timberleaks found that French importer F. Jammes is still buying from Société d’Exploitation Forestière Centrafricaine (SEFCA), a firm in CAR previously accused of bribery and funding armed conflict.
Civil war erupted in CAR in 2013 and as violence has played out in largely rural areas, timber operators have not gone unscathed by the unrest nor the allegations of corruption that are deep-rooted in a place named by Transparency International as among the world’s 20 most corrupt nations.
According to Global Witness, in 2013 SEFCA made a bribery payment of CFA 250 million (€380, 876) to Seleka, a violent insurgent group guilty of committing war crimes, in return for armed escorts and protection of its logging concessions.
SEFCA, the largest logging operator in CAR that held almost 400,000 hectares of land as of 2016, is also accused of illegally harvesting timber by breaching cultivation limits.
Timberleaks research also identified Abex Bois Exotiques as purchasing timber from a suspect source.
An importer of wood from across Africa – its website names Cameroon, DRC and Gabon as sourcing countries – Timberleaks also identified Abex imports which analysis of markings revealed to be coming from the Sewacajua community forest in Liberia.
Illegal logging in the West African country is rampant and was known to have played a critical role in funding Liberia’s bloody civil war. A 2018 report exposed how timber companies exporting from the Sewacajua forests have done so without fully adhering to the necessary regulations or adequately informing local communities.
EUTR, active since 2013, is the EU-wide legislation designed to halt illegal imports and stop suspect timber from Africa and elsewhere entering European markets. It prohibits import of wood sourced illegally abroad and requires importers to carry out due diligence checks to minimise the risk of buying such wood.
Estimates suggest that more than 100 million cubic metres of illegal timber is harvested annually, degrading five million hectares of forests - an area 474 times the size of Paris - each year.
Authorities in the Netherlands and Sweden have handed out fines for EUTR breaches – the latter fined a firm €80,000 in 2016 – while last year the UK regulator issued its first fine against a timber trader.
Overall, sanctions issued across Europe have been minimal though and the ongoing approval of exporters like those named above shows how high-risk timber continues to slip through the net.
France has around 14,000 companies which import timber and wood products, yet only 53 operators were checked by the French EUTR competent authority between March 2017 and February 2019, according to national documents. Six were found to be in breach of EUTR. Of these, three were sanctioned with an administrative fee - ranging from €5,000 to €15,000 - and the process is ongoing with the other three operators, the French competent authority confirmed to Timberleaks.
The EU’s own published data for the second half of 2018 indicates that 17 importing operators in France - 0.1 per cent of the total - were subjected to checks by French authorities and of those checked, more than 40 per cent were found not to be abiding by the law. Yet none were penalised, according to the EU data.
The data contrasts unfavourably with other big EU importing countries. Germany, for example, carried out six times as many checks in the same 2018 period, and issued penalties in 90 per cent of cases where companies were found to be non-compliant.
Clément Sénéchal at Greenpeace France thinks there is a lack of political will to sanction importers.
“The situation at the minute is that the authorities lack the resources to conduct proper controls of the operators at La Rochelle and there is not enough focus around transparency to monitor what importers are doing,” the organisation’s climate and forest campaigner told Timberleaks.
Greenpeace France filed a civil complaint against several French importers – including the four named above – in 2016 arguing that they had breached EUTR due diligence requirements and had not taken ‘necessary precautions’ to monitor COTREFOR’s supply chains. A December 2017 request by Greenpeace lawyers for the magistrate to question the importers has so far gone unanswered.
“The French government is reluctant to really apply penalties to the operators and this prevents any strong signal from being sent to the market,” Sénéchal added. “I think the legislation [EUTR] is sufficient and now it’s a question of implementation and political will to fully address the timber imports coming from the Congo Basin.”
The French competent authority told Timberleaks that they remain “very vigilant” to the “significant problems” of illegal logging in the Congo Basin.
“France has strengthened its action to combat imported deforestation by launching its national strategy to combat imported deforestation, which involves both basic agricultural products and wood,” a spokesperson said.
"The importers mentioned are, like all French wood importers, subject to the EUTR control plan at national level. When an operator contravenes its obligations, sanctions are applied.”
Le Commerce du Bois (LCB), a French trade group for the timber sector, told Timberleaks that since 2015 they have offered members – which include Abex, Angot Bois and F. Jammes – a due diligence checklist which, although independent, is approved by the French authorities.
“Some disparities are sometimes singled out in the implementation of the EUTR by companies and the control of authority [sic]. This is why Le Commerce du Bois wanted to offer a DDS [due diligence system] that is recognised by the European Commission,” an LCB statement said.
“This system, approved by the European Commission, is not static and regularly evolves in line with the geopolitical situation of the supplier countries but also and above all with the efforts made by the latter to provide all the guarantees of legality.”
LCB said that Angot Bois and F. Jammes use its DDS to conduct assessments on suppliers and that they provided “sufficient evidence” to show their imports were lawful.
However, when the risk of illegalities in countries of origin is so high, the ability to ensure that, as EUTR requires, there is a ‘negligible’ risk of imports being linked to illegality is almost impossible. In the Congo Basin, past case studies have shown that both government documents and third-party audits cannot necessarily be relied upon.
Colin Robertson, a campaigner at anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, told Timberleaks: “In the case of DRC timber it would be almost impossible for EU importers to be 100 per cent sure that their wood was harvested without any of the forest laws being broken.
“What we have seen is that importers generally gather some official documents from their suppliers and claim that this constitutes 'due diligence'. But they don't really conduct a meaningful risk assessment of whether the laws have been respected.
“It doesn't help that the main EU destinations for Congo Basin timber are France and Portugal, where EUTR enforcement has been particularly toothless.”
Some progress has been made across the continent since the EUTR took effect – trade in timber from some high-risk countries, notably Myanmar teak, is now more carefully scrutinised and inspection checks have increased – but variations in enforcement across the economic bloc are becoming increasingly stark.
Where the marked logs arriving at La Rochelle and other European ports end up is difficult to ascertain but it is likely to be ending up on sale by EU retailers as high-end flooring, decking, furniture or even musical instruments.
When citizens in the EU were polled for their thoughts on deforestation earlier this year, 66 per cent said their governments were not doing enough to combat deforestation. If they are to improve, Timberleaks’ findings suggest that implementing EUTR properly with regard to African tropical timber would be a good place to start.
Abex and Tropical Wood Trading did not respond to comment requests from Timberleaks. Angot Bois and F. Jammes declined to comment.
*This article was updated on 11 July following confirmation from the French competent authority with regards action taken against the six companies found in breach of EUTR.
Cover illustration by Sara Santini for Earthsight