There is nothing quite like the rich feel, colour and even the smell of real wood to make a house feel like a home. Yet our preference for natural products in the home should always be combined with a thought for how timber is being harvested.

Every day we are surrounded by products made of wood. We cut bread on a wooden board with a wood-handled knife, then pull up a chair to the table, reaching for a pencil to write a shopping list. Our list may include clothes pegs, coat hangers, kebab sticks, matches and many other items made of wood.

Much of our furniture is made from timber harvested in distant forests we never set eyes on. Wardrobes and table tops made of simulated wood can contain un­seen timber products, such as chipboard, on the inside. How many of us consider the source of these products – the forests, and their essential role in the environment?

Forests hold water and keep soil in place, preventing erosion. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people but it is the forest ecosystem as a whole that acts as a cradle for life and a buffer against climate change. Ancient forests have evolved over thousands of years into unique and vital habitats for millions of species.

Supporting a diverse range of species, forests are much more than a collection of trees. They are home to 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Forest ecosystems are complex webs of organisms that include plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. The most biologically diverse and complex forests on earth are tropical rainforests.

Without forests, species can disappear, the natural water balance can be disrupted and an ecosystem that supports human populations can fall apart. Uncontrolled logging of these highly sensitive ecosystems can bring about deforestation and disrupt the lives of local communities, sometimes with devastating consequences. Clandestine operators are drawn to illegal logging as it generates a higher revenue than other environmental crimes such as wildlife poaching or illegal dumping of toxic waste.

Governments worldwide have been working on strengthening the legal frameworks that regulate the timber trade. Illegal logging harms not only the environment and local communities but also companies operating responsibly within the boundaries of laws and regulations.

Management of forests to ensure their sustainability means caring for them in a way (and at a rate) that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, and regeneration capacity. Sustainably managed harvesting of trees preserves the potential of forests to keep meeting their ecological, economic and social functions at every level without damage to other ecosystems.

A joint study by the United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol has reported that illegal logging accounts for up to a third of the global timber trade and contributes to more than half of deforestation in central Africa, the Amazon basin and southeast Asia. It is likely that up to 90 per cent of wood in these regions is illegally harvested by organised criminal entities.

How many of us consider the source of these products – the forests, and their essential role in the environment?

In 2003, the European Commission came up with a voluntary action plan to address illegal logging. The forestry law enforcement, governance and trade (FLEGT) plan marked the beginning of an ongoing process to develop and implement measures to address illegal logging and related trade. This was the first attempt by the commission to ensure that all wood imports come from legal wood harvesting.

Although some progress was seen, the initial voluntary mechanism was not enough to reach the intended goals. Now timber regulations drawn up in 2010 are coming into force, making it against the law to place illegally harvested timber and timber products on the EU market. Ten years on, the FLEGT action plan is up for review.

The Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee (MEUSAC), together with the agriculture directorate and Environment Ministry, held a consultation session on the new regulations in February.

At the meeting it was pointed out the illegal trade of forest resources undermines international security and has been associated with corruption, money laundering, organised crime, human rights abuses, and in some cases, violent conflict.

In the forestry sector, cheap im­ports of illegal timber and forest pro­ducts, together with the non-compliance of some economic players with basic social and environmental standards, destabilise in­­ter­national markets. This unfair competition affects those European companies, especially small and medium sized companies, that behave responsibly and play by the rules.

Timber importers were advised on licensing for importation in the EU and their obligations as operators who place timber and timber products on the market. An operator is the person who first places the timber on the market.

Since March 2013 it has become a crime to place illegal timber on EU markets. All those affected by the regulation have to adopt practices to ensure that the timber or wooden products they trade and supply are legal. A legal framework, which distinguishes between operators and traders (buyer/seller), is based on due diligence and monitoring. It affects all those who place timber on the EU market as well as traders further down the supply chain. Traders are required to keep information about their suppliers and customers to allow for traceability. These measures are intended to squeeze out trafficking of illegally-cut timber.

Monitoring organisations have been set up in the EU to verify the proper use of the system by operators and take action in the event of failure, including notifying the au­thorities. Operators can develop their own systems or use one developed by an approved monitoring organisation. Supply chains are often complex, making it difficult to have traceability. Each supplier down the line needs to be recognised by a monitoring organisation.

Importers are obliged to ask the supplier for information on the source of the timber. Information related to a supplier’s legal right to harvest the timber and proof that relevant payments including duties have been made, can be requested.

Not all countries are at the same level of implementation. The aim is to bring everyone together in a serious system and flush out illegal ope­rators. Profiting from the logging of protected forests using cheap la­bour and bypassing controls must be stopped. The penalties in member states must be ef­fective, dissuasive and in proportion to the crime. A report must be sent to the EU every two years on the implementation of the regulation for placing timber and timber products on the market.

The regulations apply to all wood pulp, paper, wooden furniture, pre-fabricated buildings, sawdust, solid wood, plywood, veneer sheets, flooring and frames, packing cases and pallets. Waste wood and recycled products, packaging material, printed paper and bamboo are exempt.

Timber products covered by a FLEGT licence or a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) permit are considered compliant with the legislation.

Voluntary partnership agreements have been set up in Indonesia and some African countries. Negotiations are ongoing with Gu­yana, Honduras, Laos, Malay­sia, Thailand, Vietnam, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Preparations include defining what is legal timber, application of tracking systems with independent monitoring and developing a legality assurance system.

We consumers can contribute to sustainable forestry by asking for certified and quality wood products whenever we buy timber products.

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