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Cautious welcome for China’s forest law illegal timber prohibition

The inclusion of a specific prohibition on buying illegal timber in China’s forest law revision has been greeted as an important advance by government and NGOs. But they also identify potential gaps in its provisions and say more detail on administration and enforcement will be needed before it can be judged whether the amended legislation brings a major new combatant into the battle against the international illegal timber trade. 

A draft of the amendments was released by the Chinese National People’s Congress for comment end of October, with the review period opened until November 29. A final version of the revised law is expected to be unveiled before the country hosts the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kumming from October 15-28 (COP15). 

This is the first time the forest law has been updated since 1998 and much of the change in the draft applies to China’s domestic forestry and timber sectors. 

It comprises nine chapters and 84 articles and the main principle behind the revisions  is ‘ecology first’. That’s the view of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which operates the Forest, Markets, Governance and Climate international forest reform and anti-illegal timber programme (FGMC). The new draft, says DFID, adds a chapter on ownership, stipulating the legitimate rights to forests, trees and woodland of state, collective and individuals.  It states that the objective in management of public-welfare and commercial forest will be a healthy, high quality and effective forestry ecology system. Forest resource protection is strengthened and cutting of natural forests prohibited. The revisions also promote increased forest cover and lay out the basis of controls on cutting volumes, licences and timber transport.  

However it is Article 65 which has particularly caught international attention. This states that ‘no entities, nor individuals shall buy, process nor transport illegally sourced timber’. DFID said to prohibit illegally-sourced timber was ‘a significant step forward’. At the same time, however, DFID remained cautious about the prospective impact of the law changes given what it describes as present lack of coordination among Chinese customs, and the Ministry of Natural Resources (NFGA) and Ministry of Commerce. The capacity and knowledge of relevant government agencies, in particular customs, it said, was another challenge.

“Law enforcement would require clearer allocation of roles and responsibilities between the NFGA and Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and their respective line agencies, in particular, the forestry security bureaus,” stated DFID. “They played key roles in forestry protection since its 1984 establishment and before reported to both NFGA and MPS, while now only reporting to MPS. A better coordinated system is needed to move ahead.” It also pointed out that the information disclosure adopted in other environment-related laws and regulations is not included in the Chinese law.

The 2018 EU FLEGT IMM Annual report highlights the growing significance of market legality requirements around the world for the timber sector, but also the commercial significance of those markets still without such requirements, notably China and India. “Analysis of trade data shows that the goal of closing world markets to illegal wood is well advanced,” it states. 

In 2018, says the report, 62% (US$25.6 billion) of the total value (US$41.2 billion) of recorded tropical wood exports worldwide were destined for countries with regulatory measures to eliminate illegal trade. The latter comprised the EU, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, the Republic of Korea, the USA and Viet Nam.

At 66%, the proportion of exports to from VPA partner countries to regulated markets was even higher,  with 11% destined for the EU, 28% for the USA, 13% to Japan, 7% the Republic of Korea and 3% Australia. Among VPA partner countries, Viet Nam had the highest proportion of imports going to these markets at 83%, followed by Indonesia at 70%.

The value of tropical timber exports to unregulated markets in 2018 was $15.6 billion, with 55%, or $8.6 billion destined for China. 

The EU and China have been talking timber legality and market requirements with one another for 11 years via their Bilateral Co-ordination Mechanism (BCM). The clear ambition of this for the EU has been to help bring Chinese procurement muscle to bear on the battle against illegal trade. The BCM holds an annual forum, which alternates between the participants, and agrees an annual workplan. It acts as a conduit for exchange on the EUTR and FLEGT VPA initiative and is also focused on informing and supporting evolution of the still embryonic Chinese Timber Legality Verification System (CLTVS).

The BCM also provided technical input for the Chinese National Forest Products Industry Association’s development of a timber-legality verification standard, backed by the UK-China Collaboration on Forest Investment and Trade programme (InFIT) and Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF) and envisaged as forming a key element of the CTLVS. “In all the discussions, it has been clear the Chinese authorities are aware that mandatory rules on legality of timber imports is the missing link,” said InFIT Team Leader Dr Zhang Junzuo.

DFID said it expected to see more interpretation and guidance on the revised Chinese Forest Law ‘to make it more practical for various parties during implementation’ and hoped to see more details provided.  

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