The destruction of forests is one of the main reasons for global climate change and illegal logging plays a major role in eroding natural habitats. A host of laws and certifications aim to combat the development.
At wholesale lumber company Cross Trade in Bremen in northern Germany, trucks roar across the compound and the smell of freshly-cut wood lingers in the air. Massive logs stocked in front of cavernous warehouses are lifted by cranes on to the moving trucks.
Each log is marked with a distinctive white number as identification and a small, rather unremarkable symbol: a certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent group that develops standards and certification in forest management and sustainability. Cross Trade only processes lumber that comes from an identifiable source.
Cross Trade’s CEO, Klaus Jürgen Schmidt, says his company has been using FSC’s certification system since 2006 – and his warehouses contain no illegal wood. “Because of the certification, I know I’m dealing with products that I can trust,” said Schmidt.
Although an FSC certification is not obligatory, Schmidt says he believes that regulation will help stem the tide of illegal logging in supplier countries. Schmidt says he and those in his industry have to take responsibility, investing in sustainable business practices rather than focusing solely on profit. “On top of that, we support social projects on the ground in Africa and Asia, like building schools and hospitals,” he said.
Certified wood is more expensive for customers, and Schmidt has to ensure that his investment in sustainability doesn’t impact his business. “Of course I have to make sure my company stays competitive,” he said.
But ideology is important too, he says, and he aims to raise awareness about the issues in the timber industry. “Consumers in Germany often don’t know why they should buy certified wood. They assume that the timber industry is just trying to make some money,” he said. Instead, the FSC label signifies sustainable logging practices, he said, adding that often, a new tree is planted for every one that is felled, thus protecting the climate.
Stopping illegal wood flows
It's a view echoed by the European Union. In an attempt to curb illegal logging, the bloc introduced the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in 2003. Its aim is to prevent the import of illegal wood into Europe.
Six countries have since signed bilateral agreements with the EU. It binds them to setting up an own local control system and furnish proof for legal logging practices. But red tape and long drawn-out bureaucratic procedures in the various countries have hindered real progress.
“Each country has to find a definition of legal and illegal,” Thorsten Hinrichs, an expert on land and forestry at Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, said.
“Along with the goods, importers receive proof about the legality of the lumber they receive. And they are also guaranteed documents that indicate whether the imported goods come from sustainable sources or not, and whether the supplier honors fair labor conditions,” said Hinrichs.
A 2010 study suggests that FLEGT has actually been largely successful, raising awareness in supplier countries where illegal logging occurs. Now, the EU is planning new regulations in May 2013 to protect tropical wood.
Indonesia project shows the way
The FSC certification that Bremen-based wood dealer Jürgen Schmidt deals with could very well become a part of the EU’s new regulation. That would force companies to guarantee that their lumber comes from a legal source.
“In order to be certified, you have to prove that the forest’s ecosystem was not threatened. Animals and plants that are endangered species have to be protected,” said Erika Müller, a forestry scientist who supports the planned EU legislation.
She said those who own forest land would have to apply to an independent body for a five-year certification, allowing clients – timber companies – to rest assured that their products come from a reliable and trustworthy source. Those companies, too, would need to be independently checked and certified once a year, she added.
Müller pointed to a co-op in Indonesia as a positive example of how certification can work. In that case, locals made loggers commit to sustainable management. The town actually purchased the land together and planted it with teak wood trees. It is the first such co-op in Indonesia to have secured an FSC certification: for each tree that is felled, 10 new seedlings are planted.
“The co-op has contributed to making residents there aware of just how important sustainable forestry management is,” said Müller. It's projects like these that spell a bright future for the planet’s trees, forests and climate.