Illegal timber trade: WWF files complaints with European Commission

Posted on 25 June 2021

WWF has lodged complaints against Germany and Austria with the European Commission for inadequate implementation of the European Timber Trade Regulation (EUTR). The aim is for the Commission to initiate infringement proceedings.

“Up to 30% of the timber traded worldwide comes from illegal sources, in many tropical countries, this figure can be as high as 90%. This illegal logging not only destroys forests, but also intensifies the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. Policymakers could effectively curb illegal trade in timber with the European Timber Trade Regulation (EUTR). But Germany does not use this instrument. That is why we are filing a complaint so that this deplorable state of affairs is finally remedied,” says Philipp Wagnitz, Director Ecosystems & Resources Protection at WWF Germany.

In Germany, one of the most important European timber markets, the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) is responsible for implementing the EUTR. But instead of pushing for compliance with the laws, the BLE, which is based in the Ministry of Agriculture, tends to side with the companies, according to WWF. Only about 1% of all timber companies in Germany are inspected annually and violations, if punished at all, would only result in fines of a few hundred to a thousand euros. This is usually not proportional in any way to the value of the traded timber. High profit margins stand in contrast to negligible risk. According to the environmentalists, the illegal timber trade is a lucrative business in Germany thanks to the slow pace of German politics and administration.   

“Research by the WWF and other environmental organisations repeatedly shows that illegal timber is entering the market,” criticises Philipp Wagnitz. “So far, reports and tips have either not been followed up at all or have been completely ignored. The BLE has gone quiet instead of fighting the timber mafia.” 

For the renovation of the German military’s training ship Gorch Fock, for example, teak was imported from the high-risk country of Myanmar, which did not comply with either the Federal Procurement Directive (Bundesbeschaffungsrichtlinie) or the requirements of the EUTR. A report by the BLE suggests that the trader has even been violating the Timber Trade Regulation for many years. Nevertheless, the authorities left it at a warning. The BLE has so far vehemently refused to assess whether the wood, most of which comes from suspected criminals in Myanmar, should be classified as illegal. The environmentalists cite Dänisches Bettenlager as a second example. The WWF had repeatedly analysed the company’s products since 2014 and found false declarations of wood species and origin. However, the BLE only issued warnings against the furniture importer. 

WWF calls on the German government to effectively enforce current EU environmental law. “The Ministry of Agriculture and the BLE must finally take the fight against the illegal timber trade seriously. Deforestation is one of the biggest drivers of global warming and biodiversity loss. It is not acceptable for policymakers and administrators in Germany shrug off the overexploitation of the world’s forests. The previous small-scale tests and placebo penalties are in no way sufficient. In addition, the European Commission must also be much more proactive in cracking down on countries if it takes its own Green Deal seriously,” demands Philipp Wagnitz.

The Commission has acknowledged receipt of the complaint – its legal department has registered the information and they will jointly determine the next steps.

In Austria, too, the EUTR has not been adequately implemented, and WWF Austria has therefore simultaneously filed a complaint with the EU Commission.

“Entire forests and ecosystems in Eastern Europe are suffering from illegal logging. Although the illegally harvested timber also ends up in Austria, the people responsible have been standing idly by and watching these activities for years. This is why we are filing a complaint with the European Commission so that this deplorable state of affairs is finally remedied,” says WWF Austria's programme manager Hanna Simons

It was only in mid-June that Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Köstinger presented a new draft for the Timber Trade Supervision Act (HolzHÜG) to the Council of Ministers – but once again the penalties stipulated were far too low and important measures were lacking. “The international timber trade is a billion-dollar business. If the penalties are so low that large companies can pay them out of petty cash, their impact completely misses the mark,” criticises Hanna Simons.

Moreover, the Austrian authorities do not usually fully exploit the possibilities for punishment. In addition, the number of checks is far too low: “The responsible Federal Forestry Office urgently needs more staff so that compliance with the law can be effectively monitored. Beyond this, however, political will is also needed to take action against these companies. There is no evidence that this will exists at the moment," says Hanna Simons.

About the EU Timber Trade Regulation

The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) aims to keep illegal timber off the European market and promote timber from sustainable sources. Anyone who places timber or timber products on the market in the EU must ensure that the products are legal. To meet their due diligence obligations, the companies in question must know, among other things, which types of wood make up the products and where they come from. Mere assurance by the trading partners that everything is in order is not sufficient. According to the EUTR, there is a clear ban on placing illegal timber on the market. 


Illegal logging, drives the deforestation, in the place where local livelihoods mostly rely on natural resources
© WWF-Greater Mekong