Blood on our hands: Ireland's role in illegal logging


Buying illicit timber funds violent regimes and causes global warming – and Ireland is the EU’s worst offender

LAST WEEK, the Netherlands supreme court sent back for trial a Dutch timber baron, Guus Kouwenhoven, for crimes committed during the civil war in Liberia – principally his alleged involvement in arms smuggling. (He was convicted of it in 2006 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment but this was overturned on appeal in 2008.)

Global Witness, which investigates and campaigns to prevent conflict, corruption and environmental or human rights abuses, welcomed the court’s ruling that Kouwenhoven should be tried again; it was the first to document his involvement in illegal logging and arms trafficking during the Liberian civil war in a report titled Taylor Made(2001).

The name refers to former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who waged a brutal war in his country and neighbouring Sierra Leone from 2000 to 2003 – funded largely by the sale of diamonds and illegal logging. What happened there was later mined to produce the script for a 2006 film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo di Caprio.

Kouwenhoven was head of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) during the Taylor regime and dominated the Liberian logging industry, with concessions covering nearly four million acres of tropical rain forest. A UN report in 2000 referred to him as a “member of Taylor’s inner circle [and] responsible for the logistical aspects of many of the arms deals”.

UN experts and eyewitnesses interviewed by Global Witness said OTC organised weapons shipments and its security personnel “blurred” with Taylor’s armed forces and even took part in military activities for his regime. Kouwenhoven was placed on the UN’s travel ban list and sanctions against OTC timber were also put in place.

Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, said Taylor’s regime depended on revenues from the timber industry to carry on a war that cost 250,000 lives: “OTC’s operations in Liberia were illegal and, under Kouwenhoven, it paid large sums both directly to known arms dealers and into Charles Taylor’s personal bank account, supporting his brutal regime.”

Last November, Global Witness lodged a complaint with a French public prosecutor against Dalhoff Larsen Horneman, one of the world’s leading timber wholesalers, alleging it knowingly bought vast quantities of “conflict timber” from Liberian companies (including OTC) and sold it on to traders across Europe.

EU member states import large quantities of illegally logged timber and wood-based products “with complete impunity”, according to Tom Roche of Just Forests, who has been a passionate voice in the wilderness on this issue for years. “An estimated 60 per cent of all tropical timber used in this country is deemed to be of illegal origin.”

Roche went so far as to stage a brief hunger strike to highlight the shameful fact uncertified tropical timber was used in furnishing the public offices of Irish Aid on O’Connell Street, Dublin. He thought it made no sense to dispense aid to developing countries if, at the same time, we’re importing large quantities of illicit timber from them.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s annual Government Barometer Survey, Ireland has the worst record in the EU as an importer of illegally logged tropical timber, worth about €20 million a year. Through us as consumers, retailers and distributors, wood processors, paper merchants and printing companies, Ireland “is part of the problem”.

Illegal logging is a major contributor to global deforestation, which causes enormous environmental damage. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for up to 20 per cent of global emissions of CO2 (more than the total CO2 emissions from the transport sector) that fuels climate change.

A recent report by Progressio Ireland, which provides professional back-up for local groups in 11 developing countries, found only four timber distributors/importers, 22 wood processors, 20 printing companies, six paper and two envelope manufacturers in Ireland are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or equivalent.

“Of particular note is that none of the larger Irish-owned timber distributors – Brooks Group (with 18 outlets), Chadwicks (24), Heiton Buckley (21) and James McMahon (13) – are certified” either by the FSC or under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, the report said.

According to Progressio’s Emmet Bergin, 6 per cent of all timber distribution outlets and 3 per cent of printing companies had certificates; the vast majority obviously couldn’t care less where the iroko, mahogany or paper pulp was coming from. (The paper used as newsprint by The Irish Timescomes from Finland or Sweden).

“Certainly, the recent construction boom saw Irish companies import vast amounts of imported tropical hardwood timber and wood-based products,” the report said. “These (especially those processed and exported from China) are very likely to contain tropical hardwood of dubious origins and in many cases be the results of illegal logging.”

By contrast, mainly as a result of having more alert consumers and more enlightened government policies, the tropical timber trade in Britain is almost all legal. Not only does the British government have a timber procurement policy for all public sector projects, it has just added “social criteria” to the guidelines, to protect indigenous peoples.

Two things need to happen in Ireland. Firstly, Green Party Ministers are in key positions to ensure only certified timber is used in all central and local government building projects. And secondly, we consumers need to ask where iroko, teak or mahogany was sourced next time we buy a sideboard, sofa or table.

Just as jewellers came to be asked about the provenance of diamonds.