European Commission admits illegal timber scandal

Feature story - 1 December, 2006
It's official. The European Union Commission has admitted that we were right about illegal timber in the commission's own headquarters.

She doesn't work for the EU. So why is her forest home in one of its buildings?

Two-and-a-half years ago, we roped off the European Commission's star-shaped Berlaymont building as a "Forest Crime Scene." We had discovered that timber stolen from the forest homes of orang-utans was being used in the construction.

This contravened Commission rules that the wood be sourced from well-managed forests, such as those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council™(FSC®).  

At the time, a spokesman for the commission, quoted in the Guardian, rejected the charge of double standards, saying the commission had been assured that only environmentally sound wood would be used.

But Commission Vice-President Kallas has confirmed to us that uncertified plywood was used to renovate the 13th floor, where Commission President Barroso's own office is located.  

"The plywood was used despite the fact that the Commission required the contractor to use only certified timber," said Sebastien Risso of Greenpeace European Unit. "This story illustrates the extent to which the European market is saturated with illegal and unsustainable timber."

Offices for EU officials or homes for orang-utans?

The forests of Indonesia, home of the orang-utan, are under threat from illegal and destructive logging, and land clearance. At the time of the Berlaymont works, up to 80 percent of logging in Indonesia was estimated to be illegal. Huge volumes of timber were being smuggled into Malaysia and China, where they were processed into wood products for export to consumer markets including Europe. Law enforcement by the Indonesian government has clamped down on illegal logging since 2005, but the situation remains fragile, and illegal and destructive activities are far from eradicated.

Aspart of its own programme to tackle illegal logging and its related trade, the European Commission has said that it will launch a public consultation on legislative options to combat the problem. This was promised in 2004 and has been repeatedly delayed since. So far, the Commission has limited its plans to setting up voluntary partnership agreements with timber-producing countries. Greenpeace, together with over 16 NGOs and over 80 companies, has called for additional legislation to tackle illegal timber.

Pirate DVDs? No way. Last tree from the rainforest? OK.

At the moment, it's easier to get illegal timber into the EU than it is to bring in pirated music or movies. We think that's an example of misplaced priorities, when the law is better at protecting the pocketbooks of entertainment executives than it is at protecting the last remaining habitats of nearly extinct species.

The offending contractors in this case were, it's only fair to say, fined. But the sum probably won't discourage further infractions. It was a tiny 750 Euros (US$ 993).

If the European Commission wants to show that it is serious about preventing forest ecosystem breakdown, it must put forward legislation to ensure that all timber products on the European market come from legal sources and responsibly managed forests.

And it has to create an environment in which their own contractors can't flaunt the regulations right under their noses. 

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