Frequently asked questions on illegal wood harvesting and on the Centre of Competence

1) How much wood is harvested and traded illegally?

Illegally harvested wood can be found in all types of products: picture frames, paint brush handles, paper, garden furniture, porch flooring, and books.  According to current calculations by the Thünen Institute for Forest Economy,  the world-wide illegal wood harvesting in the year 2009 was between 103 and 284 million cubic meters of roundwood, meaning between 7 and 17 percent of the total harvest. Germany imports about 120 million cubic meters of wood or wood products annually. Of these, in the year 2009, between 2.4 and 5.2 million cubic meters were from illegal sources, meaning between two and five percent of total wood imports.  

The portion of illegally harvested wood worldwide has dropped by about 22 percent since 2002. The reason for this is increased countermeasures by the EU, Australia and the USA.

2) What are the ecological consequences?

About 13 million hectares of forests are destroyed worldwide each year. That is the equivalent of more than 50,000 soccer fields each day. The consequences for the environment: forests are, against the standards of forestry practice, not being sustainably managed. Unprofessional harvesting practices are damaging the forest floors. All of this endangers the species diversity and the stability of the forests. The consequences are large-area deforestation and thus an increase in CO2 emissions. At the same time valuable forest populations, which could on their part bind excess CO2, are being lost. Climate change is advancing.

3) What are the economic consequences?

Through illegal wood harvesting, the affected countries miss out on taxes and fees, and at the same time corruption is promoted. The destruction of the ecosystems endangers the income of the local populations in the affected countries. According to estimates of the World Bank, the international economy loses earnings of between 10 and 15 billion US dollars each year through illegal forest harvesting. Also it holds true: those dealing or processing wood illegally can do it for lower prices. This increases the economic pressure on legally active enterprises. Thus the sustainable forestry is under pressure, also in Germany.

4) Which countries are affected by illegal wood harvesting?

siehe Beschreibung
The graphic shows the five most strongly affected countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. Figures in percent. (© Dieter Englert, Weimar 2012)

Above all the tropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America are affected, and also Siberia. The illustration lists the five most strongly affected countries on four continents. Through the international trade and the global labor division, illegally harvested wood can also be contained in wood products that are not imported directly from the affected countries.

5) To what extent are consumers affected?

Trade with illegal wood cheats consumers. For example illegal (but also legal) wood can be found as so-called exchange woods under false declarations in trade. These woods are generally less valuable, whereby often financial harm occurs, because, as a rule, higher prices are paid for these products, for example when they are declared to be a high value wood type such as mahogany.

Another point is endangered and protected wood types. Agencies often confiscate expensive musical instruments which contain protected woods (for example, palisander in the fingerboards of guitars), without this being mentioned in the accompanying documentation.

6) Can consumers identify illegally harvested woods?

For laypersons, the type and origin, particularly of tropical wood, is generally not verifiable. Through the new legal requirements, a prerequisite is made that no products from illegal wood harvesting enter the EU domestic market. But for consumers another form of illegality is of special significance, falsely declared wood products (which can also stem from legal harvesting). They are mostly evident to the consumers when less valuable characteristic emerge, for example when fungus affects the wood or cracks and deformations occur. Here the Thünen Centre of Competence can contribute to consumer protection with an absolutely correct determination of the wood.

Consumers can also do something to help sustain forests: they can pay attention to reliable forest sustainability certifications like PEFC or FSC while purchasing.

7) How can illegal wood harvesting be combatted?

One way to fight the destruction of forests is sustainable forestry. For this purpose the wood harvest must be in accordance with national laws, which is not the case in all countries. The EU fights illegal wood harvesting and the marketing of these woods within the framework of the FLEGT Action Plan (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade).

The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), in force since March 3, 2013, takes the demand approach. It prohibits the marketing of wood and wood products from illegally harvested wood within the EU. Those who trade wood must guarantee that this comes from legal sources and observe various preventive measures. They must prove that species and origin of wood as well as the source of delivery is correctly declared, and in some cases they must undertake measures to reduce the risk that the wood could come from illegal harvesting.

The wood trade regulations supplemented the existing, local approach of partnership agreements with, up to now, six tropical countries (Ghana, the Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Indonesia and Liberia). These states have implemented approval and licensing  systems to assure that only legally harvested wood is exported to the EU. In addition to the EU, the USA and Australia have passed laws against the trade with illegally harvested wood.

8) How are endangered tree species protected?

The protection of endangered tree species is regulated by the Washington Species Protection Agreement (CITES). Trade relevant, endangered tropical tree species should be used in a naturally sustainable way. The CITES lists several hundreds species of endangered woods available for trade at this time. For species with the highest protection level (WA Appendix 1) strict trade prohibitions exist, similar to that for ivory. Species of the second and third protection level can only be traded with strict regulations. The total production chain must be monitored from harvest to shipping. Import countries like Germany monitor the introduction with trained customs personnel and species protection agencies. As practical recognition assistance, the Thünen Institute has created a computer-supported determination software, “CITESwoodID”, which is implemented throughout Europe.

The most frequently internationally traded tree species and CITES-listed tree species are American mahogany, the decorative African Afrormosia and the Ramin imported primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia.

9) Which tasks are assumed by the Thünen Centre of Competence?

The Thünen Centre of Competence on the Origin of Timber proves the origin and type of wood and wood products free of doubt. Thus the center has the worldwide largest scientific wood collection (Xylothek) available, with about 37,500 samples and 50,000 microscopic slides. These are the reference material for the macroscopic and microscopic determination of woods and for the creation of a genetic database that is needed for the genetic wood type and origin certification. In addition the centre trains scientists in wood-producing countries and supports them in Africa and Russia, for example in the creation of own genetic reference laboratories. These shall in the future carry out some of the on-site monitoring. Consumers, associations and businesses can contact the Centre of Competence to test wood samples. The centre also provides expertise on question of the legality, sustainability and trade flows of wood.

10) Which methods are used to determine the type and origin of wood?

Macroscopic wood type determination: This method is suited for a reliable primary estimate of whether one is dealing with the correctly declared wood type or trade category. For the macroscopic determination the cross cuts of the samples are cut with a cutter and the structural characteristics studied with a magnifying glass (10 to 12 times enlargement).  Important trade woods can thus be identified with certainty to the species and genus level.

Microscopic wood type determination: For official statements to be presented in court, the Thünen Centre of Competence conducts microscopic analyses. For this purpose the scientists create microscopic cuttings from the sample to be studied. The wood samples are compared on the basis of about 100 anatomical structural characteristics under a lighted microscope and determined with certainty to the genus or species level. The microscopic techniques are routinely used for the determination of all massive woods down to woods at a very thin veneer layer (thickness of under 0.15 mm).

Genetic wood types and wood origin determination: For a species-specific identification of the woods, the Thünen Centre of Competence developed practice-feasible test processes on the basis of molecular markers. With the help of these genetic barcodes, some species can be identified that are difficult to identify with other methods. Depending on the available data material, it should, in individual cases, be possible to determine the origin of a wood up to 30 km exactness. For this purpose the scientists first document the spatial genetic pattern of the trees in target areas. This can be the distribution area of a tree species, particular regions of a country, or even smaller spatial units. The scientists collect samples for each tree type in each target region and study them with modern genetic markers. The data gathered in this manner on the geographic genetic structure serves as reference data for the classification of wood samples. With this information it can be verified whether information on the land of origin and region are correct. Here it holds: the higher the quality of the genetic reference data, the higher the number of samples and the more rich the variation of genetic markers, the more exactly the origin can be determined.

In addition as a fraud-resistant genetic method, a process is offered in which samples can be taken during the wood harvest. At a random point in the trade chain, a second sample can establish the genetic agreement. With this practice written documents on the processing and trade changing can be substantiated and guaranteed.

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