European Timber Regulation begins to make use of timber look like 'criminal activity,' says FFIF; legislation due to come into effect next March could reduce use of wood

HELSINKI , November 23, 2012 (press release) – As of next March, weeding out illegal timber from the EU will be the responsibility of the European forest owner as seller or the company importing timber in the EU.

The system is anything but simple. The European Timber Regulation, which comes into effect in the beginning of March 2013, says that the one who places timber and timber products on the market must be able to show the origin of the wood used in the product.

The company or individual also has to evaluate the risks related to illegality of every timber lot and to show how the risks have been decreased if they have been greater than negligible.

For each timber lot or wood product imported in the EU, one must be able to show its name and type, the name (and sometimes even the scientific name) of the tree species used, the country or region in a country that the timber originates from, information on the risk of illegal loggings in the area, the volume of timber logged, information on the body supplying the timber and documents proving compliance with legislation.

The risks must be evaluated on the basis of the legality of logging and the occurrence of illegal loggings in the area in question, as well as in the light of international regulations and the complexity of the chain of custody.

All documents must be preserved for five years.

Regulation may decrease the use of timber
In addition to this, the regulation contains provisions for those who trade in wood products. They must be able to show where they purchased the timber lot or the products and where they delivered them, if not sold to consumers.

Documents showing the description of the product, the volume of timber used in the product, the tree species used as well as sales and purchases ledgers must be preserved for five years.

Small wonder if the use of timber begins to look like criminal activity. As an example, take an art dealer who also sells wooden frames as a sideline. Come March, he might be sorely tempted to start selling aluminium frames instead – as we know, the origin of aluminium is not questioned by anybody.

”There might be such a temptation, yes, although this is not the purpose of the Regulation,” says Mr. Tatu Torniainen, Consultative Official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland.

”That certainly is a question worth asking,” says Mr Marko Lehtosalo, Senior Adviser at the Agency for Rural Affairs, the authority monitoring the implementation of the Regulation in Finland. ”Although the Regulation obligates both large and small traders, I reckon we must bear in mind the resources that compliance demands from smaller actors,” says Lehtosalo.

Monitoring system is not yet finalised
This being the EU, simply having a regulation in place is never enough: we also have to have a system to monitor compliance. In practice, monitoring is carried out by private auditing companies, monitored in turn by designated authorities in each member state – in Finland’s case, the Agency for Rural Affairs.

The auditing companies are accredited by the European Commission. As far as is known, some ten companies are planning to apply for accreditation. They are most likely to be the very same companies already accredited for auditing certifications.

However, the monitoring authority also monitors those placing the products on the market. The monitoring is, however, targeted to those with presumably the largest risks. The evaluation of the risks may be based on the perception of the monitoring authority, but also on reports from other stakeholders.

Moreover, the details of how the Regulation will be implemented have not been finalised. For example, we do not know which products the Regulation will ultimately concern. What is known is that recycled or printed paper will be excluded.

The Commission has published a product list, but it leaves room for interpretation. ”As an example, the Regulation does not concern ’packages used to support other products’,” says Torniainen.

This means that if fruit is packed on a wooden pallet, the Regulation does not concern the pallet, but if the pallet is used to carry other pallets, it will. The same goes for all packages made of wood or wood fibre.

It is easy to find products whose treatment is unclear – take, for example, products made of willow or clothes containing rayon. Nor do we know at this point about the sanctions for not complying with official rules based on the Regulation.

Monitoring is based on random samples
The monitoring of the Regulation is based on random samples. However, the monitoring body only needs to carry out checks which it considers necessary. Importers, for example, have no other reporting obligation besides that related to the monitoring.

The monitoring concerns systems, not individual product lots. According to Lehtosalo, ”we are not going to pull illegal boards out of walls, but we aim at preventing the entry of the next illegal timber lot.”

Will the officials accept the forest certification systems, for example, as proof of the legality of timber? According to Lehtosalo, the provisional answer is ’no’. The same goes for the very comprehensive systems which Finnish forest industry companies use to monitor the origin of timber imported from Russia.

”It will depend on the system. We have criteria that they must meet. If the systems do meet them, we will accept them,” says Lehtosalo.

For example, the PEFC forest certification system bans all illegal wood. However, PEFC has initiated steps to change its rules so that, as far as possible, they would comply with the wording of the EU Regulation and those of the corresponding Australian legislation and the US Lacey Act.

”Our goal is that the new PEFC rules will be accepted by mid-March 2013 at the latest,” says Mr Auvo Kaivola, Secretary General of PEFC Finland.

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