27th Jan 2022

EU-Indonesia deal aims to stamp out illegal timber imports

  • Illegally-felled logs in Indonesia being taken downstream (Photo: European Forest Institute)

Home to thousands of rare and endangered animal and plant species, Indonesia's forests have suffered heavily from illegal logging over previous decades, but a new accord with the European Union is designed to snuff out the nefarious practice.

On Wednesday (4 May) the two sides signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in Jakarta, ushering in a strict auditing system that aims to make it harder for illegally-felled timber to reach the European market.

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Indonesia - the world's third-largest tropical forest nation - has seen its tree coverage shrink from 82 percent half a century ago, to less than 50 percent today, causing a raft of social, environmental and economic problems, say pressure groups.

Despite improvements, a recent Chatham House study suggests 40 percent of Indonesian timber production remains illegal, a black-market industry valued at $9 billion, with much of it ending up in the furniture and other wooden products which adorn European homes and businesses.

EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht heralded the new agreement, which now needs to be ratified by both sides before full implementation is possible by a March 2013 target date.

"Not only is Indonesia the first Asian country to conclude VPA negotiations with the EU, it is also by far the largest timber exporter to enter into such an agreement," de Gucht said in a statement.

Under the deal, timber and wood products, including paper, will only be allowed into the EU if they have an official stamp of approval, a measure pushed for by the UK, the Netherlands and France, and to a lesser degree, Germany.

At the Indonesian end, forest communities will now be able to call for the suspension of a company's timber exports if they find evidence of illegality, with some 30 million Indonesians depending on the country's forests for their livelihoods.

"Simply getting to legality is quite a big step," John Bazill, an expert in the commission's environment department who has worked closely on the agreement, told EUobserver. "But obviously achieving sustainability is the ultimate goal."

Reactions from industry were mixed, while environment and civil society groups stressed that the accord's success depended on the quality and transparency of the auditing system, and whether penalties will be applied in a meaningful way.

"We are hopeful," said Mardi Minangsari of Telapak, an Indonesian civil society group that has been involved in the VPA process since 2003.

Andre De Boer, secretary general of the European Timber Trade Federation, a group which represents twelve national timber federations mainly from the wood importing sector, said the new agreement would "make it easier for companies to be sure of the legality of products they buy from Indonesia".

But World Growth, a pressure group which lobbies for the palm oil industry, said Indonesian rates of illegal deforestation had been grossly exaggerated to justify the use of trade bans.

The latest bi-lateral agreement follows similar deals with several timber-exporting countries from Africa: Ghana, Cameroon, Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Next week the EU is expected to sign a VPA with Liberia, a west African state plagued by over a decade of civil war and a series of dictatorial leaders including Charles Taylor, whose notorious militias frequently recruited child soldiers.

A clampdown on conflict diamonds by the international community saw the country's reliance on timber become even greater, prompting the UN to slap sanctions on Liberian timber exports in 2003.

Today an estimated 45 percent of Liberia - or 4.3 million hectares - is covered by tropical forest, meaning the country contains over half the entire rainforest remaining in West Africa.

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