With Forest Legality Initiative, WRI enters a new phase in the fight to end illegal logging

Since 2010, WRI’s Forest Legality Alliance (FLA) has been at the forefront of efforts to combat illegal logging and associated trade.  Together with co-founders the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), as well as over 100 partner organizations from governments, civil society, and the private sector, FLA has been a prime convener and technical resource on this crucial issue. Over that period, both the challenges and opportunities for winning the illegal logging battle have changed dramatically, and WRI’s approach to the issue has grown and evolved accordingly.  To herald this change, WRI has transformed the FLA into the WRI Forest Legality Initiative (FLI).  

More than just a name change, FLI will usher in new multi-stakeholder partnerships, advance innovative technologies and scientific methods, and expand its operations with new staff to be based in countries critical to ending the trade in illegal timber. So we would like to explain the reasons for these developments, and why we are excited about them.  

The FLA arose in reaction to the 2008 passage of Amendments to the century-old Lacey Act – a law passed to control illegal trade in wild fauna, to cover timber.  In essence, the U.S. criminalized trade in illegal timber. Nowhere in the world before then had a national government required all businesses to exercise due care to make sure their supply chains did not include illegal wood products – and back up that requirement with the threat of criminal prosecution, fines, and even prison time. Considering how unprecedented this was, the law’s potential to impact the illegal timber trade was uncertain, and wood product companies were alarmed at just how they were going to comply with the new law.   

So, shortly after the U.S. amended the Lacey Act, FLA was born out of a Global Development Alliance between WRI, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Environmental Investigation Agency.  Over the course of several years, FLA steered the forest trade conversation away from whether the Lacey Act Amendment should be gutted, repealed, or replaced and to a conversation that instead focused on how businesses could reduce their risk of running afoul of the new law.   

To shift the conversation, FLA designed and hosted regular meetings to spur dialogue and partnership and conversations among FLA member organizations (by 2016 there were 129). These included timber exporters, wood and paper product companies, private sector service providers (e.g. certification and auditing firms), government agencies, and environmental research and advocacy groups. FLA also launched a Risk Tool that provided an overview of forest governance and management issues in select countries, a Declaration Wizard that helped importers complete a mandatory U.S. Customs form, and case studies that showed how globally-operational companies, such as Ikea and Staples, legally sourced their wood products. FLA also traveled around the world educating stakeholders on the new law and how it would affect the timber trade status quo. Eventually, industry groups stopped campaigning against the law, and recognition that companies must exercise due care for legal sourcing became the new business-as-usual.  

Now, seven years on from the start of FLA, for which USAID ended financial support in September 2016, the international timber trade has entered a new era. In the years following the Lacey Act Amendment passage, the EU and Australia enacted similar legislation, and Peru, a country with persistently high levels of illegal logging, entered into a free trade agreement with the United States that required improvements to forest governance, management, and enforcement. Moreover, in 2010, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) was formed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Criminal Policy Organization (INTERPOL), and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The World Bank, and the World Customs Organization (WCO), even though it took another five years before the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 2015 calling on governments around the world to start treating the trade in illegal timber as a serious crime.  

The momentum to fight illegal logging continues to grow. 2016, in particular, will go down as a major milestone in the fight against illegal logging:  Lumber Liquidators reached a $13 million criminal settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the hardwood flooring retailer’s illegal sourcing practices; Indonesia and the EU announced that the long-awaited FLEGT timber licenses will start being issued in November; and at the CITES Conference of the Parties in October, the Party countries placed more than 300 Dalbergia species under increased international trade restrictions, since many of the species are severely overexploited rosewood.  

Even with these policy and enforcement developments, WRI recognizes we still have a long way to go before wiping out illegal logging and ensuring a fair marketplace for legal wood products. That’s why, in this next phase, FLI will continue convening stakeholders and advancing tools and resources, but we’ll be doing so with a deepened focus on engaging stakeholders in wood producer and processor countries and on advancing technologies and tools that meet the increasingly complex demand of managing international supply chains.  

In China, for instance, we’ll hire FLI staff in Beijing to increase our outreach and convening efforts with private operators, the government, and environmental organizations. In Indonesia, Dewi Tresya recently joined us to focus on EU-FLEGT, including private sector licensing issues and building civil society capacity to monitor the timber trade. And although the formal membership model of the FLA has ended with the transition, the FLI looks forward to working in close partnership with many of the FLA’s former members in the future.   

On the technology, tools, and resources front, FLI is bringing together the world’s experts on wood identification and forest information management technologies, and we’re investing FLI’s own resources to advance solutions showing the best potential for effective deployment by enforcement agencies and businesses. We’re also developing a framework report and case study publications on mandatory and voluntary timber traceability and legality verification systems. FLI will use the underlying research to tease out key differences between different systems, challenges to effective adoption, and recommendations to drive improvements and wider uptake. And through collaboration with WRI’s Central Africa Forests Initiative, which produces the Congo Basin Forest Atlases, FLI will soon be relaunching the tentatively-named Forest Transparency Initiative (FTI), a web-based platform which will generate a transparency rating for logging concession holders and sawmill operators based on the voluntary disclosure of documentation they are required to hold to operate legally in each country. FTI will initially cover only the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, with anticipation for future expansion to other countries.  

For years, WRI carried the FLA mantle, laboring to ensure that demand-side timber legality laws persisted and that companies had information essential for improving their sourcing practices. These accomplishments, though, were just the foundation of our fight to eradicate illegal logging. Moving forward, FLI will venture further into global supply chain management issues, making sure that private operators have tools they need to source timber legally and that governments and civil society have the capacity necessary to hold illegal actors accountable.