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Black Market Timber Continues to Find Its Way From Africa to the E.U.

A new report accuses European companies of importing illegally harvested wood from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A general view taken on November 5th, 2013, shows forest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo North Kivu region.

A general view taken on November 5th, 2013, shows forest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo North Kivu region.

Ten European companies have been accused of importing illegally harvested timber from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Global Witness. The watchdog group said earlier this month that the timber was brought to market by a company called Industrie Forestiere du Congo (IFCO), which operates in a densely forested, remote area of the central African country.

"[The report] shows that certain companies based in the European Union are probably not doing adequate due diligence to screen out any potentially illegal timber from their supply chains," says Colin Robertson, a campaigner with Global Witness. "Secondly it points to a weak enforcement in some E.U. member states of the [E.U. Timber Regulation]."

The report provides satellite and other evidence that suggests the IFCO harvested timber outside the boundaries of the area it was approved to operate in, which "directly contravenes DRC forest law and the company's own management plan."

In addition, the report cites a letter written by Congolese authorities in Tshuapa province, where the IFCO's concession lies, ordering the company to suspend its operations for more than six months in 2018. According to evidence presented by Global Witness, the IFCO did not comply with the order, and logs harvested during that period may have wound up in E.U. markets.

The IFCO is a major player in the DRC's timber industry, with clients in countries across the E.U., including France, Spain, and Italy. Between June and October of 2018, the company brought logs into the E.U. that had a market value of around two million euros. According to Robertson, that timber was an expensive good that may have been used to make high-end furniture or flooring.

"It's very much a luxury product, and it retails for very high prices," he said.

The IFCO controls two concessions in the DRC, including one that the report lists as an area the size of Luxembourg. The company has only owned the concession since early 2018, when it was acquired from another logging company called Cotrefor, which was previously called Trans-M. According to the report, the largest shareholder in Trans-M was a Lebanese businessman named Ahmed Tajideen. Three members of Tajideen's family have previously been placed on a terrorism sanctions list by the United States Department of the Treasury, due to alleged links to the Hezbollah militia group.

The report describes how after Trans-M changed its name to Cotrefor, a representative of the company denied ongoing links to Tajideen. However, most of the Trans-M staff remained, and many are now employed by the IFCO.

"We don't know who the owners or shareholders of the IFCO are," Robertson says, adding that E.U. buyers of the company's timber should ask it to disclose that information.

The report also alleges that the IFCO has not been following sustainability principles that should mark areas that were logged within the past 25 years as off-limits, which would give them a chance to regenerate. While not technically a violation of DRC laws, the failure to adhere to the company's management plan is an indication that its operations are potentially more environmentally harmful than it has led buyers to believe.

"The Congo Basin is one of the most climate critical forest on Earth," Robertson says. "It's the second-largest rainforest, it's home to incredible biodiversity, and it supports the livelihoods of millions of people. It's also one of the most remote places on Earth where sometimes governance or oversight of the behavior of companies is weak."

The report calls on companies in the E.U. to cease purchasing timber from the IFCO until they can verify that its operations are in compliance with the E.U. timber regulation. In addition, it urges the government of the DRC to investigate any illegal harvesting of logs by the IFCO outside of its agreed-upon boundaries, and to sanction the company if it is found to have violated its management plan.

While the IFCO itself hasn't responded publicly to the report, on March 21st the company published a statement in French from the Congo-based Federation of Wood Manufacturers on its website. It called the allegations "defamatory." The statement denied that logs were harvested from off-limits areas and asserted that the IFCO and Cotrefor are "distinct entities."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.