Last month Greenpeace Africa released a report on how the illegal logging sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in a state of organised chaos, with numerous companies flouting regulations and threatening the country’s vast forests.
“Cut it Out: Illegal Logging in the DRC”, also predicted that this chaos would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for traders based in the EU and dealing in DRC timber to comply with the new European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) that came into force on March 3.
A little over a month later, these concerns and the need for regulation have been demonstrated in the Belgian port of Antwerp, a major entry point into Europe for timber from the DRC. A shipment of 40m3 of Afrormosia (African Teak) by logging company Tala Tina is currently being held by the Belgian authorities after investigative work by Greenpeace Belgium raised questions over its legality.
The EUTR prohibits illegally harvested timber and timber products from being traded on the European market. By doing so, it aims to reduce illegal logging activities, which affects millions of Congolese citizens who depend on forests for their livelihoods, fuels corruption and denies the DRC government tax revenues.
This Afrormosia shipment in Antwerp is an early test for the new regulation. Greenpeace alerted the authorities to the shipment, which is valued up to nearly 61,000 euros.
There are numerous reasons to be suspicious. Firstly, the contract for the concession area in DRC operated by Tala Tina has never been made public, something required by Congolese law. Secondly, no evidence of the “Annual cutting permit” (ACIBO) was found, which is also required by law. Thirdly, very little Afrormosia is actually found in Bandundu province, where Tala Tina has its logging permit. It is therefore possible that the wood was bought by the company from a third party, and the risk that such timber is illegally sourced is very high.
Sales of Afrormosia are strictly controlled by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), because the species is at risk of extinction. Greenpeace has contacted the CITES authorities in both the DRC and Belgium to express its concern, since the country of export and import are jointly responsible to ensure that trade conditions are respected.
Unfortunately, this is all too often a purely administrative exercise. For high-risk countries such as the DRC, where the sector is riddled with corruption and there are few on-the-ground controls, this is far from enough.
CITES authorities are legally obliged to verify legality in case of doubt - all the more important under the EUTR, which created a “green lane” for CITES-listed timber species entering the EU with a valid certificate. This could become an important loophole if not strictly enforced.
This case provides yet more evidence that the logging sector in the DRC is out of control. It is time for the DRC government to tackle corruption and clamp down on the routine flouting of Congolese law by forestry officials and logging companies, and put their people and forests first.