The Chinese have a saying about drinking poison to quench a thirst, used to warn against hasty remedies with consequences worse than the problem itself. A recently proposed method of tackling illegal logging is just such a case. China is one of the world’s largest importers of timber products. So whether or not the country takes measures to ensure those products are obtained legally affects the survival of the world’s forests and ecologies and China’s international reputation.
Field studies over the last 10 years by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have found China’s demand for timber is driving illegal logging, with dire global consequences. The Chinese government is taking the problem seriously. But the key challenge is that the country has no relevant law, which means illegally sourced timber often enters China legally. Chinese customs authorities rely mainly on CITES, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But that convention bans trade in a limited number of tree species, therefore only a tiny fraction of illegal timber is stopped at the border.
The bulk of timber felled worldwide ends up in China, the US or the EU. But in the US and the EU, importers are required to exclude illegal timber. This means that illegal timber is more likely to be sent to China. And over the years, EIA has found that illegal logging and smuggling by Chinese timber firms overseas often involves assistance or direct participation by local companies and officials.
A voluntary code
Now the Chinese Government is promoting a voluntary code of conduct, the Guidelines for Overseas Sustainable Forest Products Trade and Investment by Chinese Enterprises. Despite its good intention, the code fails to deal with the root of the problem and will in fact exacerbate it.
First, the guidelines attempt to control the behaviour of Chinese firms operating overseas, but the most pressing issue is deciding how to prevent illegal timber from entering China. Secondly, the guidelines are voluntary. Unlike laws or regulations, these will not constrain the behaviour of profit-motivated business people and are of no use in law enforcement or punishment.
In the past, two similar sets of guidelines have been promulgated and done virtually nothing to stem the flow of illegal timber into China. Chinese forestry officials have privately admitted that the country will eventually need an enforceable law, but said that the cost of legislation would be too high. EIA has heard all this before – policymakers in the EU and the US once had the same concerns.
But times have changed. Global timber markets are becoming more regulated, with illegal timber being excluded from supply chains. Some Chinese firms are participating in this process but unless China bans the illegal timber trade, those responsible firms will struggle to compete with their less honest counterparts and will in effect be punished.
Please read the full version of this article on Chinadialogue.