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The UK government is planning to introduce a new law aimed at clamping down on illegal deforestation by fining large companies who cannot prove that their supply chains are not linked to illegal deforestation.

The legislation- drafted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs- would prohibit companies in the UK above a certain size to use products grown on land which has been subject to illegal deforestation. Ministers have launched a six-week consultation to discuss these measures, where they will consider how the law will impact businesses and other stakeholders. 

Businesses could also face substantial fines if they fail to publish information to show where these key products- including rubber, soil and palm oil- come from and whether they are produced in line with local laws protecting forests. The Department says that these illegally produced commodities ‘have no place in the UK market’. The size of these fines would be determined at a later date. A regulator will check that businesses have complied, and if found not to, the environment secretary will have the power to issue fines.

The proposal says that the legislation would target a relatively small number of businesses. Employee or turnover thresholds will be set out in the secondary legislation, but the department has said that the approach would minimise the regulatory burden on smaller businesses in the UK whose supply chain is less likely to have an impact. 

Deforestation accounts for about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The issue has come into mainstream politics, with both the UK and the EU considering rules to outlaw the importing of products from illegally deforested land. 

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International Environment Minister, Zac Goldsmith, says that there is a ‘hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint’ and that ‘the UK has a duty to lead the way in combating the biodiversity and nature crisis’. 

While industry associations representing food and drinks makers, as well as retailers, welcomed the announcement, Elena Polisano, forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK, says the law is ‘seriously flawed’. “We’ve all seen the way President Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest. We will never solve this problem without tackling demand. Companies like Tesco, who sell more meat and dairy and so use more soya for animal feed than any other UK retailers, know what they need to do to reduce the impact they are having on deforestation in the Amazon and other crucial forests: They must reduce the amount of meat and dairy they sell and drop forest destroyers from their supply chain immediately,” she says. 

According to the recent report from WWF, to satisfy the UK’s demand for commodities including beef, cocoa, palm oil, and paper and pulp between 2016 and 2018, a total of 21.3 million hectares of land, equivalent to 88% of the UK land area, was needed each year. 

Earlier this year, more than 40 European companies, including retailers Tesco and Marks and Spencer, warned they would boycott Brazilian products if President Jair Bolsonaro’s government did not act on deforestation. 

Institutional investors have also urged Brasília to halt deforestation. 

In the first half of 2020, deforestation had risen by 25% from the same period in 2019, totalling 4 879 sq km

Featured image by: Nathanael Coyne

On July 22, Cameroon approved a logging concession in Ebo Forest in the Littoral region, despite the fact that the forest is home to many species of endangered primates, including gorillas, chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys. Ironically, the government signed an international agreement to protect gorillas and their habitats just two days previously. 

The government has planned to extract timber from the Ebo forest since at least February, when the country’s Minister of Forestry signed two orders proposing the classification of two forestry management units for timber extraction in the forest without consulting the local communities living around the forest or allowing them an opportunity to give their input. Ebo is the ancestral home of more than 40 communities. They depend on the forest for food and traditional medicines.

In response to this, in April, more than 60 conservationists, including experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group and Global Wildlife Conservation, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, asking that the plans for the logging concessions be put on hold and the government work with local communities to develop a sustainable land-use plan. 

Instead of logging Ebo Forest, they suggested, sustainable land-use alternatives could be a viable option for generating revenue for Cameroon, supporting the socio-economic livelihoods of Ebo’s nearby communities, and protecting this critical habitat for some of Africa’s most endangered wildlife, including gorillas. They argued that allowing a more inclusive process would show the international community that the government intends to honour its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government did not respond.

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cameroon logging gorillas
A camera trap photo of a gorilla in Ebo Forest in Cameroon (Photo provided by Global Wildlife Conservation). 

Russ Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, chief conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation and a signatory of the letter to Cameroon’s government, says, “The Ebo Forest is a globally important ecosystem that is home to some very endangered species such as Preuss’s red colobus. I cannot comprehend why the government would issue a logging concession for short-term gain to destroy such an important part of Cameroon’s natural heritage. The future value for ecotourism alone would far outweigh the value of the timber, never mind all the other ecosystem service values that the forest provides for local communities.”

The Ebo forest makes up half of the Yabassi Key Biodiversity Area, and it is vitally important to the planet’s overall health. It sequesters 35 million tons of carbon and its destruction will exacerbate the climate crisis. The 1 500 square-kilometer forest, which was once slated to become a national park, is home to forest elephants, 12 endemic species of plants, a potentially new subspecies of gorillas and 700 endangered Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzees.

The forest was also once home to the critically endangered Preuss’s red colobus monkey, a species found only in western Cameroon and southeastern Nigeria. The 17 species of red colobus monkeys are among the most threatened primate groups in mainland Africa.

Researchers have not been able to confirm the presence of Preuss’s red colobus in the Ebo forest since 2012. Hunting for the bushmeat trade has likely greatly reduced their numbers. Red colobus are usually the first primate species to disappear from forests with heavy hunting pressure. If they disappear from an area, it is likely that many other species are suffering and in decline as well. If Preuss’s red colobus are still present in the Ebo forest, conservationists fear the logging concession, which will increase hunting pressure, could permanently prevent the species from rebounding.

Earth.Org received this information from Global Wildlife Conservation, which conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. It does this through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at https://globalwildlife.org

Featured image by: Global Wildlife Conservation.

People usually associate deforestation and illegal logging with tropical rainforests in developing countries such as those in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. However, illegal logging also happens in developed regions such as Hong Kong. 

There is one particular premium-priced tree called the Incense Tree (Aquilaria sinensis) that has been subjected to illegal logging for over a decade and is now endangered. The Incense Tree is native to Hong Kong and south China and while it is abundant in numbers, because of the massive amounts of logging in the past century, nowadays the largest remaining wild population of Incense Trees can only be found in Hong Kong. The tree produces a dark aromatic resin when it is injured and infected by fungus. Traditionally, farmers created artificial wounds on the tree’s bark in order to induce resin production. The resin-impregnated heartwood of the tree, also known as agarwood, has been used in traditional herbal medicines and it is also used to produce incense and perfumes. Cultivation began around the turn of the first millennium and the trees have long been a staple of traditional feng shui forests, which are woodlands preserved near rural settlements for good luck. The island became a hub for the wood’s export and earned it the name “Hong Kong,” which translates as “Fragrant Harbour”.

The Incense Tree is currently categorised as vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. Agarwood prices can be as high as US$ 30 000 per kilogram depending on the quality (TRAFFIC, 2012). Its high value has motivated illegal logging activities in Hong Kong, and there is an increasing trend of illegal felling of Incense Trees in Hong Kong since 2010. This illegal activity most often occurs in the New Territories, in country parks such as Tai Mo Shan and Sai Kung. 

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C.Y. Jim, a professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong has been tracking the destruction of the wild incense-tree population and found that in 2013, the Hong Kong government logged 96 theft cases, registered the damage of 168 trees and recovered 133kg of wood. Jim believes that these figures underestimate the true extent of the destruction; he believes that multiplying the recorded number of felled trees by five is a more accurate number. According to Asia Plantation Capital, the industry is worth at least US$6 billion. 

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in Hong Kong has developed an action plan to save the remaining population of the Incense Tree. 

Under the Forests and Countryside Ordinance, a person who unlawfully fells or damages any trees on Government land is liable to a maximum penalty of HKD$25 000 fine and one-year imprisonment. Offenders involved in the illegal logging of Incense Tree are usually prosecuted under the Theft Ordinance which imposes a heavier penalty of a 10-year imprisonment. However, this has not deterred the offenders from felling. To combat the increasing trend of illegal logging, in 2018 the government increased the penalty for contravening the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance to a maximum fine of HKD$1 million and imprisonment for seven years if the offender smuggles species that are under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list. The penalty was previously HKD$500 000 and one year imprisonment.

The wild populations of incense trees in China have been exploited extensively and therefore offenders have extended these illegal activities to Hong Kong. In the past, poachers often injured the trees to induce resin production and would return several years later to harvest the agarwood that it turned into. With the increasing demand for agarwood, poachers nowadays indiscriminately cut down the trees and hope to find the agarwood. They usually target large mature trees because there is a higher chance of finding agarwood in it. Police have found that in some cases, incense trees are too large to cut down and are not completely cut down. The damage to the trees is often so serious that the trees can no longer survive even if they produce the resin to heal themselves. Some poachers even return to search for the agarwood from the surviving stumps.

In 2016, the AFCD and the police force set up a special task force to step up enforcement to protect the incense trees. The special task force regularly patrols the country parks (the locations of which are kept secret to protect the trees), focusing on particular areas popular for illegal logging. AFCD also uses infrared sensor camera traps as a surveillance device to record any movement of heat objects. Any movement triggers the devices and the recordings are sent to the headquarters immediately, where staff determine if the movement is caused by suspicious activities. Villagers and residents who live near the country parks often serve as informants that exchange intelligence information with the special task force for early detection of suspicious activities. 

For large incense trees that are obvious targets, the AFCD has installed metallic tree guides to protect these high-risk trees from mechanical damage. The tree guards are 2 meters tall and there is controversy as to whether these guides damage the root of the trees during installation. There is also concern as to whether these systems make the location of the trees more obvious. 

The AFCD has also been actively growing incense tree seedlings and replanting them where they once were. The AFCD says that it has been planting around 10 000 seedlings per year since 2009. This program also includes planting these trees in secured public spaces such as schools, government premises and urban parks. 

To solve the root of the illegal logging problem in Hong Kong, the AFCD has also coordinated with the relevant mainland authorities to step up the enforcement and crack down on dealers and retailers who sell agarwood from illegal sources. 

Featured image by: poida.smith

It’s the world’s biggest importer of logs, legal and illegal alike. A behemoth that drives an engine of timber harvesting across the world, from the rainforests of Malaysia to the jungles of Cameroon. But now, China may be poised to enter the club of countries who play another role in the timber trade: enforcer of the rules fighting against illegal logging.

On December 28th, 2019, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee revised the country’s Forest Law, for the first time including language that bars Chinese companies and investors from trafficking in illegal timber. Environmental advocates say the change is significant, and are hopeful it’s a signal that China is prepared to crack down on the illegal logging trade.

“We’re quite encouraged by some of the language in there,” said Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness.

The revisions are the first changes made to China’s Forest Law in over twenty years. If effectively implemented, the new rules could boost international efforts aimed at curbing the sale of illegally harvested logs, which has been estimated to be worth as much as $150 billion per year.

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China’s Timber Industry

According to a 2019 analysis by Global Witness, which monitors illegalities in the natural resource trade, 80% of China’s tropical timber imports in 2018 came from ten countries with weak governance and accountability indicators. They included Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, among others.

The trade in illegal logs is one of the most lucrative criminal markets on earth, with INTERPOL estimating that it represents between 15 and 30% of the overall market for wood products. Public officials in countries with tropical rainforests can reap huge financial benefits from the trade, worsening corruption of already fragile governments and threatening the sustainable management of those forests.

According to the World Bank, illegal logging may be responsible for as much as $78 billion dollars per year in lost global tax revenue – money that could be used by low-income countries to fund a wide range of public needs. And as its economy has boomed, lax timber import markets in China have been one of the main drivers of the illegal logging problem.

“It could be a massive game changer,” said Lisa Handy, Senior Policy Advisor with the Washington, DC-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “China remains by far the largest market for timber as well as illegal timber. The fact that they’ve been such a black box for timber import and processing has just allowed the trade to flourish.”

Article 65 of the revised law now reads, “No unit or individual may purchase, process or transport timber that he/she clearly knows was piratically felled or indiscriminately felled in forest regions.” The revisions are set to come into force on July 1, 2020.

But analysts say that the real test of whether or not the revised law will have a practical effect on the market comes down to how it is interpreted and enforced.

“It will depend on the level of political support they’ll have in terms of ensuring that it’s effectively implemented,” said Allison Hoare, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, which has released a series of reports on China’s role in the global timber trade. “It’s relatively easy to introduce a piece of legislation but the tougher part is ensuring it’s enforced effectively.”

The clause specifying that traders must “clearly know” that timber has been sourced illegally in order for penalties to apply to them, for example, could set a high bar.

“We’d like to see that further developed to make sure it’s a threshold that allows effective enforcement to be taken,” said Blackman.

The revised Forest Law was written mainly to regulate the use of domestic forests inside of China rather than those of the country’s trading partners abroad. But an article emphasizing the law’s applicability to China’s import markets was recently posted to the website of China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

Advocates say they hope it’s a sign that the government is prepared to exercise tougher oversight on importers.

The revisions to China’s law follows a series of measures passed in Europe and the US in recent years which levy harsh penalties against companies found to be importing illegal logs. While China has lagged behind its wealthier trading partners in establishing similar regulatory regimes, analysts say there’s been a growing sentiment among Chinese policymakers for the need to catch up.

“I think for quite a few years there has been a reasonable level of awareness of China’s role in purchasing and driving illegal logging in other countries, and there has been some interest and political commitment inside the government to make progress,” said Hoare.

Chinese President Xi Jinping often references his goal of building an “ecological civilization,” and the country is due to host the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference in late October, barring unforeseen complications stemming from the global coronavirus outbreak.

According to Jo Blackman of Global Witness, the real measure of the new law will come down to whether it leads to consequences for those who break it:

“The supply chain behavior and sourcing practices of these companies only change if they really believe that they’re at risk of falling afoul of enforcement regimes, and they only believe that when they see action taken against significant importers.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Ashoka Mukpo, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

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