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Australia outlaws illegally-logged wood from abroad
Jeremy Hance
November 21, 2012

Illegal logged tree in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Illegal logged tree in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

In another blow to illegal loggers, Australia has passed the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill, joining the U.S. in outlawing the importation of illegal logged timber from abroad. The new legislation makes it a criminal offense for Australian businesses to import timber from illegal operations. The Australian government estimates that $400 million worth of illegal timber products are sold in the country each year often as outdoor furniture and wood for decks.

"The illegal timber trade is a trade that benefits no one. It risks jobs, it risks the timber industry, and it risks the environment," Australian Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig said in a statement.

The law was pushed by a wide coalition of businesses, environmental groups, and social and religious organizations. Retailers like IKEA, Bunnings, Simmonds Lumber, and Kimberly Clark all supported the law, while Uniting Church, World Vision, WWF, Oxfam, the Wilderness Society, and Greenpeace lobbied for it.

"[The law] criminalize[s] a trade that many Australians would already presume to be banned," Reece Turner, a forests campaigner with Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, said. "Illegal logging often involves land theft, trashing national parks and breeds corruption and human rights abuse. It's a huge challenge to countries in our region including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia."

The black market trade, which is estimated to be worth $30-$100 billion a year, is often run by mafia-like organizations involved in other criminal activities. Shining a light on illegal logging in source countries can also be incredibly dangerous as activists and journalists are frequently attacked, and even murdered, for attempting to stop illegal logging in countries like Cambodia and Brazil.

The new legislation was fiercely opposed by some logging interests, including Alan Oxley, a lobbyist who works for industrial forestry companies in Malaysia and Indonesia. Oxley, who won notoriety in 2010 for misrepresenting the views of the late Nobel Laurette Wangari Maathai and then CIFOR director Frances Seymour as part of his campaign on behalf of plantation developers, butted heads with scientists and environmentalists over the issue.

"This bill faced stiff opposition in Australia from pro-development lobbyists," William F. Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University and supporter of the legislation told "I'm delighted to see that common sense has prevailed."

Punishments for violating the new bill in Australia include forfeiture of goods, fines up to $275,000 for a business and $55,000 for an individual, and five years in jail.

In addition to stemming illegal logging abroad, legislators say the bill will also help local businesses. Illegal loggers are able to sell their wares far cheaper than those following the law, making it difficult for Australian wood and paper businesses to compete.

The U.S. was the first country to pass illegal logging legislation with an amendment to the Lacey Act in 2008. Since then, global illegal logging has dropped 22 percent with many experts saying the U.S.'s legislation played an important role in the decline. Illegal logging legislation is also set to go into effect next year in the European Union.

"With this bill Australia becomes part of the solution, rather than part of the problem," Laurance added.

Turner told Reuters now that the Australian legislation has passed, "the biggest outstanding question is how the government will ensure these laws are enforced. We know that unscrupulous companies and individuals continue to import illegal timber."

Enforcement of the law in the U.S. recently created a political furor after Gibson Guitars was investigated for importing illegal timber from rainforests in Madagascar. The charge led Gibson Guitars to kick-off a campaign, championed by industrial loggers in Asia and local Tea Party activists, to try and weaken the Lacey Act. In the end, however Gibson Guitars paid $350,000 for violating the Lacey Act and forfeited illegal wood products worth over $250,000.

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