UK: Stay the course for sake of world forest governance

Last September, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed the entire genus of Dalbergia – more commonly known as rosewoods or redwoods – on its Appendix II, granting the species significantly higher protection through limiting trade.

This international, binding agreement came into effect on January 2 this year and constitutes a major step forward in the fight to combat illegal timber trade.

Listing rosewoods is a remarkable achievement which has only come about as a result of extensive campaigning and investigations by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and other organisations in the environmental movement, combined with the necessary political will by the Parties to CITES.

In 2000, the UK Government entered into a bilateral agreement with Indonesia in order to combat illegal logging. It was a time of chaos and brutal conflict, when the rule of law and the urgent need for reform were priorities for both Indonesia and the international community. It was recognised that how we collectively change the way forests are governed means changing many other things..

Signing of the UK/Indonesia bilateral agreement (c) EIA

One of the first steps taken was to use CITES to list the timber species ramin – widely used to make picture frames, snooker cues and futon bases – on Appendix III. Ramin trees were being logged in Indonesia by a local illegal timber baron with major political aspirations and from the internationally renowned national park Tanjung Puting, home to the magnificent but endangered orangutan. With a major tourist attraction at stake and a proud history of providing a refuge for the park’s biodiversity, the listing of ramin with support from the UK Government started an incredible and sustained commitment from both the Indonesian and UK governments to address illegal logging, included the underpinning of commitments to achieve credible and positive forest governance.

Raft of illegal logs being transported by river in Indonesia, 2001 (c) EIA

The violence against any who dared to challenge those involved at the top of the criminal operation stealing valuable timber from Tanjung Puting was absolute; researchers, local community members, Indonesian and international activists were all victims of the upcoming timber baron and his organisation, yet knowing at the same time there was a country committed and ready to stay the course helped to ensure the fight against illegal logging and the associated trade remained a priority in Indonesia – and that taking huge risks to work on the ground was worth the many hardships and hazards.

From the turmoil of 2000, the partnership and investment by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) in Indonesia’s forests and with the Indonesian Government in an ambition of improved governance has come a long way.  The sustained political will has brought forward champions from within both governments and working with them has been a large part of Indonesia getting to where it is now.

Tackling the core issues of corruption and pushing for transparency within the forestry sector has also meant significant, long-term benefits being identified elsewhere; smuggling is smuggling – whether it is illegal timber and endangered wildlife or people, drugs and arms – and when a powerful criminal ‘owns’ a trafficking route or an official and can wield their power through to the very top, then the entire structure is as risk of rotting from within.

Post-Brexit, it is in the UK’s best interests to maintain and extend its international commitments toward forests and good governance, revisiting historical bilateral agreements and ensuring that key successes such as rosewoods at CITES continue and are rigorously enforced.

To leave behind so much progress and such an historic leadership role for the UK – having achieved so much and, in the process, securing international respect – would be a major mistake.