Victory! How ten years of activism helped protect the world’s forests

Feature story - July 7, 2010
Today, after a ten year Greenpeace campaign, Europe banned the trade in illegal timber - a great leap forward in the struggle to protect the world's forests and climate. This is a look back at the ten years of activism that led to that law. It's about how we – and you – challenged governments to live up to their responsibilities to safeguard our planet, and won. It's also a reminder that, while our friends in Japan face jail for opposing environmental crimes, history suggests they will one day be seen as law-makers, not law-breakers.

This story starts a long time back, but we'll pick it up ten years ago, when Greenpeace began a campaign to stop Europe’s trade in illegal timber. (It sounds odd - it is odd - but, until now, illegally logged timber could still be legally imported and traded in European markets.)

We knew that illegal logging contributed to deforestation and climate change. We knew it threatened species with extinction. We knew it was often blood timber - linked to organised crime and to violent civil wars. We also knew that illegal timber came mainly from countries with weak governance, where corporate criminals could cause enormous environmental damage with little consequence to themselves.

Over the next decade, scores of Greenpeace activists put their lives and liberty on the line to expose and stop illegal logging in the Amazon, Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia – by blockading ports, halting wood shipments and going undercover to investigate criminal logging.

A landmark law

Until now, trading illegal timber hasn't actually been illegal in Europe. While this law isn't perfect (all timber products are covered except printed materials like books, which will be exempt for at least five years), it's a good start.

When it comes into force, the law will ban illegal timber from entering Europe. European timber traders and forest owners who put timber and timber products on the EU market will have to verify the legality of any products suspected of being illegal, and offenders could be fined. Furthermore, traceability requirements mean that timber in products can be traced from a shop back to the country of harvest.

If properly enforced, the law will strengthen forest protection, force the timber sector to be more transparent and drive the systemic changes desperately needed to end illegal logging once and for all.

The power of activism

Throughout Greenpeace's history, non-violent direct action has helped us to win campaigns like this one. With political leaders globally lacking the will to take responsibility and safeguard our planet, a lot of laws would never have made the statute books if activists hadn't got out there to expose and confront environmental crimes.

Yet last year, the Red Carpet Four were held in detention for 20 days for gate-crashing a royal banquet and holding up banners demanding action on climate change. They still have to have their day in court and may face future penalties. And right now, two Greenpeace campaigners, Junichi and Toru, are facing jail sentences of up to 18 months for intercepting a box of embezzled whale meat in Japan.

But non-violent environmental activism is not a crime. If you look back through the decades, a large number of the environmental crimes we exposed went on to be outlawed by governments, vindicating activists and pointing the finger at the real environmental criminals.

When we win our campaigns, we become law-makers, not law-breakers - as our campaign to end illegal logging shows.


A ten-year campaign to stop illegal logging: the highlights

2000: Greenpeace starts to intercept ships carrying timber it suspects of being illegal into Europe and begins three years of work to uncover some of the main European timber traders paying for 'blood timber' from Liberia, which is fuelling the deadly civil war in that country.

2002: Greenpeace occupies the UK Cabinet Office after finding wood in the building sourced from companies logging illegally in Cameroon.

2003: Greenpeace occupies the new UK Home Office headquarters after finding plywood from Indonesia's last rainforests had been used in the building.

The UN Security Council imposes a ban on exports of conflict timber from Liberia, and the EU finally recognises that it needs to take effective action to tackle illegal logging.

2004: Greenpeace occupies the EU headquarters in Brussels after revealing the use of wood sourced from companies trading in illegal timber from Indonesia's threatened rainforests in its renovation.

2005: Greenpeace seals the entrance to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid after finding that part of it had been built from illegal timber from the Brazilian Amazon, and exposes widespread use of illegal timber, laundered through China,  in the European plywood industry.  

2006: Greenpeace exposes Finland's illegal timber trade with Russia, and occupies the roof of the UK’s Cabinet Office after discovering illegal plywood used in building works.

2007: Greenpeace investigations show that timber traders in Europe are still importing plywood from companies known to be involved in the illegal timber trade in Indonesia. We also launch a report exposing international logging companies causing havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

2008: Greenpeace protests during a presidential meeting in Brazil, intercepts a cargo ship suspected of transporting illegal timber to France, organises an illegal logging art exhibition and unveils a 12-metre Amazon tree at the European Commission's headquarters.

A ‘Forest Love’ web video inspires more than 130,000 supporters to write to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, asking him to ‘show a little love’ to the planet’s forests. The US adopts landmark legislation to curb illegal wood imports.

2009: Greenpeace lodges a complaint before the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Nantes against one of the world's leading international timber and wood products wholesalers.

2010: Greenpeace takes Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard to the Democratic Republic of Congo to witness the destruction caused by illegal logging. Watch the first two episodes of our series about her journey (the rest of the series will follow):

The EU Parliament votes to adopt legislation to crack down on the illegal timber trade in the EU. 

What next?

This hard won victory was one that was desperately needed; in the ten years since we launched our campaign, the world has lost over 40 million hectares of its forests (pdf) – that's an area the size of Germany and Denmark put together.

In the next ten years, the challenge is even bigger. To tackle climate change, we need to end deforestation by 2020: all deforestation - illegal or not.

While Europe is strengthening its forest laws today, yesterday Brazil voted in favour of weakening the Forest Code, legislation that helps protect the Amazon. If the proposed new code becomes law, it will give a green light for further forest destruction and an amnesty to those who have violated the law by illegally destroying the rainforest in recent decades.

We're working on it, and we'll certainly need your help. Today though, there's time to take a couple of minutes out to celebrate, and feel the forest love: