Lacey Act Corruption-Based Risks Should Prompt Wood Importers to Branch Out

The Lacey Act, a century-old U.S. statute, provides a unified set of penalties for possession of illegally procured animals or plants from the U.S. and, after amendments five years ago, those procured in violation of foreign laws as well. The Act was envisioned as a conservation statute, not an anticorruption statute; big cats (Siberian tigers) rather than big cronies were named as the motivation behind a recent prosecution under the new amendments. Yet in finalizing that case—involving retailer Lumber Liquidators’ purchase and import of illegally sourced wood—the Department of Justice (DOJ) seemed to suggest that companies could be held to a higher standard of diligence where they source natural goods from countries with high levels of corruption. In announcing Lumber Liquidators’ agreement to plead guilty to various Lacey Act charges for importing timber procured in violation of foreign logging laws, the DOJ emphasized the company’s failure to address red flags that the imports were illegally acquired. Those flags included that the imported wood came from a region known “to carry a high risk of [timber] being illegally sourced due to corruption and illegal harvesting.” Furthermore, the case suggests heightened scrutiny when natural resource products travel through intermediary agents whose countries also suffer from corruption or lack of robust enforcement of laws against illegal logging and the like. (In the Lumber Liquidators case, Russia was the source of the stock in question, and China was the intermediary seller’s base.)

The fate of Lumber Liquidators should put companies sourcing wood from regions with entrenched corruption on alert. The DOJ’s statement, if it is carried forward, foreshadows positive results. The Lacey’s Act’s potential in the fight against corruption is significant, straightforward, and good for everyone. A Bloomberg analysis notes that enforcement of foreign laws benefits U.S. producers as well as combatting foreign corruption. The Sierra Club emphasizes the role that corruption plays in global illegal logging and the Lacey Act’s role in “leading the fight” against it. The Natural Resources Defense Council blog also advocated the role of the Act in helping “countries establish rule of law and crackdown on corruption.” Such commentary highlights a second takeaway from the DOJ order: to reach the corruption-combatting potential of the statute, wood sourcing companies need to allow the Lacey Act threat to improve compliance in their source nations, rather than leaving for greener pastures. Indeed, using the Lacey Act to incentivize companies to “engage their supply chain” to avoid forestry corruption is both achievable and worthwhile:

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Guest Post: Fighting Corruption in Anti-Deforestation Programs — The Case of REDD+

Aled Williams, Senior Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, contributes the following guest post:

The protection of tropical forests is a hot topic, particularly in light of the pressing threat of global climate change. The 2014 UN Climate Summit saw a range of national and subnational governments, along with numerous business and civil society organizations, endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, which set a timeline for cutting natural forest loss in half (by 2020) and ending it completely (by 2030). A major goal of the declaration is to agree at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is to reduce deforestation and forest degradation as part of a post-2020 global climate agreement. And financial contributions are now stacking up, with more than USD 9.6 billion pledged by 22 countries to the UN’s Green Climate Fund.

Securing a global climate agreement that includes tropical deforestation would no doubt be a historic achievement. But once world leaders return from Paris next year, the proof of the pudding will lie in national implementation. They may well wish to consider what can be learned from recent schemes for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (known as REDD+), to date largely funded by the Norwegian government through bilateral arrangements with major deforesters like Indonesia and Brazil, but also channeled through multilateral agencies. It turns out that even when donors have pledged substantial amounts of money, spending that money effectively can be challenging. A major part of that challenge relates to the difficult political-economy of forest sector reform in developing countries, where corruption in its various guises can be a core feature. Indeed, despite being described as a potential game-changer for addressing tropical deforestation, REDD+ financing also risks increasing corruption and related problems like land grabbing.

These challenges are not new and indeed were well-known among Norwegian aid practitioners as REDD+ pilots began some four years ago. But the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre has just completed a three year research project–based on case studies of REDD+ pilots in the DRC, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, and Tanzania–that sheds some new light on the issues. The report’s empirical findings suggest three main lessons: Continue reading

The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products. Continue reading