Europe has taken the first step in attempting to stop the billion-pound trade in illegally logged wood and timber products with MEPs voting to introduce tough new regulations on importers.
While the EU has spoken out against illegal timber, a major driver of deforestation worldwide, it has up until now remained one of the trade's biggest markets. Europe currently consumes around 12 per cent of the world's illegal logged timber, with the UK alone spending £700 million a year, according to estimates by WWF.
Under the new regulations agreed by European MPs, companies importing timber into the EU will be required to keep evidence documenting who the wood was bought from and where it was harvested to ensure their timber has been felled legally.
In practice this means companies will have to do as much as they can to ensure their timber is legal and, most importantly, demonstrate that they have done this. If they haven't done this 'due diligence' they will be liable for prosecution.
NGOs, such as Greenpeace, which have campaigned for more than a decade on the issue said removing demand from Europe for illegal wood would have a significant impact on reducing deforestation. The US imposed similar obligations on its timber importers in May 2008 and there is already at least one ongoing legal case against a supplier.
However, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warned that the success of the EU's new regulations would depend upon tough action by individual member states, who will ultimately be responsible for punishing operators who break the rules.
It said countries like Italy had a furniture industry that relied heavily on illegally-imported tropical hardwoods and showed little evidence of internal political will to tackle the problem.
'What we need to focus on now is ensuring that issues such as penalties, which are the responsibility of member states, are very strong. After all, this law is only as strong as its weakest point.
'But finally we have something we can use when we know illegality has occurred, which was what we wanted,' said EIA campaigner Faith Doherty.
The rules, which are unlikely to come into effect until 2012, will only apply to traders who first place timber and wood products onto the European market. Campaigners had been keen for a wider system to include anyone who traded in illegal timber.
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