Global Timber Trade - Information

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This website provides information (charts and commentary) about international trade in timber products. Its focus is on tropical timber, particularly that originating in Africa and East Asia.

The site also includes an introduction to China - perhaps the most important market for both regions' tropical timber, particularly in respect of forest governance - and a summary concerning imports of wooden furniture from East Asia.

The charts are based on published statistics of declared imports. The statistics are available from a number of information centres that are open to the public. The quality of import statistics collated by some importing countries leaves something to be desired. Consequently, the data (which exclude small quantities) which have been abstracted to generate the charts have been amended where the statistics published are clearly anomalous.

Few if any importing countries co-operate with the customs/inspection services of producer countries in checking declared imports with exports - a simple task to measure possible fraud. The small number of product codes (particularly for logs and sawn wood) used by customs inhibits such checking. Targeted investment in customs/inspection services (including simple computing and communications technology) backed up by robust law enforcement would, particularly where timber exports account for a substantial proportion of a producer country's foreign exchange earnings, probably yield a handsome rate of return.

Perhaps vested interest and intimidation affect the apparent choice of the World Bank, IMF and other creditors/donors to not support such investment. In an ideal world, declared tropical timber imports would correspond one for one with declared exports. However, all too frequently, this is not the case (due for example to laundering, and false declaration for transfer pricing purposes), resulting in loss of government revenue and indicating weak management.

Trade can have a positive and negative impact on illegal logging and sustainable forest management "SFM". This website indicates which trade flows are likely to have most leverage on (forest) governance.

Given current governance in the tropical timber industry, there is a risk that, in most producer countries, the area of commercially attractive forest that will remain once the period of validity of current and imminent logging concessions expire will be so much smaller and poorer than now that widespread adoption of SFM may no longer be feasible. Market demand for chain of custody certification would lead rather more rapidly and cheaply than SFM to a sustainable level of timber exports - and is arguably a pre-condition for SFM. Timber that is exported without a reliable chain of custody certificate should be regarded as of dubious provenance.

There are rather fewer ports of export in producer countries than destination ports. Most are close to major conurbations facilitating staff recruitment and investment. Unless chain of custody certificates are made mandatory at the port of export, importers in countries, notably China and Southern Europe - where socio-environmental issues appear to be of minor national interest - will continue to fuel demand for illegal timber.

The unassailable(?) sovereign right of heads of state to corrupt the instruments of government (including the judiciary) and liquidate their national assets in a manner contrary to the national interest (at times at the behest of "development" agencies) is a major handicap. Taxpayers in creditor/donor countries have yet to highlight their distaste for bailing out producer countries whose leaders demonstrably care little about generating finance for long term development from the national resources which, given their titles, they should husband. Re-establishing land and other rights for forest people is probably a pre-condition for long term forest stewardhsip.

The price at which much tropical timber is exported from producer countries is very low (due to corruption and poor implementation of forestry law - which not only help maximise producer company profits but also attract certain types of company and investment). So much so that the aesthetic, functional or (potentially) socio-environmental superiority of tropical timber is all but irrelevant in large parts of the market. The (loosely described) construction industry is said to be the principal end-user of tropical timber. Not only are governments (central and local) buyers (both directly and through Private Finance Initiatives) of construction works but they also give planning permission for such works. The general public has little leverage (other than at a political level) over whether construction works (housing, offices, civil engineering projects) use timber which has been sustainably produced and (demonstrably) procured within the law.

Countries whose forest law is sound and enforced should be favoured as sources of supply. All timber exported from countries whose forest law is so weak or unenforced as to fall below a standard which multi-lateral fora deem unacceptable, should be deemed illegal (unless independently verified as deriving from operations meeting that standard) and individuals/companies responsible for its export/import should be charged in a forest crimes court whose jurisdiction is global.