APEC customs officials learn best practices for detecting illegal timber products

31 August 2017 © FLEGT.org

More than 100 customs, forestry, and anti-corruption officials and civil society representatives from countries in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum met in Vietnam from 18-19 August 2017 to share best practices for identifying illegal timber and wood products.

Speakers at the Workshop on Customs Best Practices to Identify Illegal Timber and Wood Products

“Customs are at the frontline of combating the illegal logging and associated trade,” said Jennifer Prescott, Assistant US Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources. “The illegal wood trade has grown in sophistication. So too must the customs.”

The illegal timber trade deprives economies of revenue from legally, sustainably managed forests, undermines legitimate businesses, threatens the livelihoods of local communities and harms biodiversity.

The workshop in Vietnam was an opportunity for officials from APEC countries — which account for 80% of the global timber trade — to discuss tools and resources available to assess the legality risk of wood products.

Davyth Stewart, Manager of Interpol’s Natural Resources Division, introduced Project LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests), which Interpol launched in 2012 to combat illegal logging and related crimes including corruption.

It supports investigations, coordinates international networks for information sharing, and supports cooperation between civil society and law enforcement. “Our work is to provide behind-the-scenes support,” said Stewart. “The credit goes to the frontline enforcement officers doing the work on the ground.”

Project LEAF’s work with countries has led to 549 arrests, mostly in Latin America and Africa, and the seizure of timber worth US$1.48 billion and equivalent to 16,888 hectares of forests.

Stewart said, however, that almost half (48%) of the arrests were low-level offenders such as truck drivers, and another 40% were facilitators. Only 10% were company owners or managers and just 2% were the masterminds. “We need to see more prosecution at the higher level to have a real impact in curbing the illegal timber trade,” he said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) set up a Container Control Program in 2003 in collaboration with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) to identify high-risk containers in four countries. Since then, 40 more countries have joined the programme and another 14 are keen to participate, said Long Nguyen of UNODC.

While the programme’s main focus is to crackdown on drug trafficking, it also strives to detect illegal wildlife and timber shipments as well as shipments containing weapons, alcohol, counterfeit medicine, electronic waste, among others.

Nguyen said the programme helped Sri Lanka to seize 28 containers of illegal Madagascan rosewood worth US$7 million that was in transit from Tanzania to Hong Kong in 2014.

It also helped Dutch customs to bust an importer of West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) logs from Suriname. Trade in this species is controlled under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the shipment lacked the relevant CITES permit.

Marie Wong of the WCO Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Asia and the Pacific said the WCO has also set up ENVIRONET, an encrypted network for customs officials to share real-time information on illegal timber seizures and possible ongoing trafficking.

One of the big challenges customs officials face is identifying the tree species from which wood originates. To help address this, the UNODC last year published the Best Practice Guide for Forensic Timber Identification.

It contains detailed information for law enforcement, including rapid-field identification techniques, collecting and preserving evidence. It also includes information for scientists, such as forensic methods for timber identification and resources for acquiring reference material and data, as well as guidance for prosecutors and judges.

The guide was so popular at the 2016 Conference of Parties to CITES in South Africa that it is temporarily out of print, said Shelley Gardner, coordinator of the US Department of Agriculture Illegal Logging Program.

Dr Eleanor Dormontt, a researcher in DNA identification and forensics at the University of Adelaide, Australia, who helped developed the guide explained why it is challenging to identify illegal timber products.

“Without the leaf, flower and other parts of the tree, it’s already difficult even for wood specialists,” she said. “It’s almost impossible for customs officials to identify the species just from the bark. Another reason is illegal timber is often mixed with legal timber products.”

Dormontt urged customs officials to tell scientists which priority species they need help identifying during raids, so that more research can be dedicated to such species.

In Vietnam, the Research Institute of Forestry Industry and TRAFFIC Vietnam have produced a guide to identify 35 regulated and prohibited wood species. The guide is used as a training resource for forestry and customs officials, who have requested more and longer training sessions so that more staff can learn to identify more wood species.

“Forestry officers from illegal timber trade hotspots were especially interested,” said TRAFFIC Vietnam program officer Nguyen Thanh Thuy. “They have never used magnifiers for wood identification. Most of them relied on on-the-job experience, smelling or observation.”

TRAFFIC Global Timber Programme leader Chen Hin Keong also shared an overview of WCO timber trade guidelines that can be localised to suit the needs of domestic authorities.

“Customs officials are not supposed to work in isolation,” said Chen. “They need to be aware of the tools that will help them do their job better. As such, they also need inter-agency and stakeholder support.”

There is also a need for importing countries to do more to recognise timber trade restrictions in exporting countries, said Dr Federico Lopez-Casero from the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

“A number of economies have banned roundwood exports,” he said. “Yet their roundwood continues to register in the import statistics of their trading partners.”

Lopez-Casero hopes more importing economies would instruct their customs official to respect such export bans and to stop granting import licences for these illegal products.

Kerstin Canby, Director of the Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Initiative at US-based non-profit Forest Trends also highlighted the importance of having stronger timber-import legislation in Asian economies.

She pointed out that countries such as Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Mozambique, Fiji, India, Cambodia and Laos have not traditionally supplied the US and Europe, and that regulation by Asian markets would provide the trade leverage needed to incentivise legal harvesting.

Senior customs officials from the US, Canada, Russia, China and Vietnam, representatives from two voluntary certification programmes — the Program for the Endorsement of Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — also shared their experiences of safeguarding timber legality.

More information
Presentations and more information about the workshop are available here.

The workshop was sponsored by the United States and co-sponsored by Australia, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and The Philippines. It was implemented with support from APEC, Interpol, the EU FLEGT Facility and The Nature Conservancy through the Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) Program.

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