Forestry: The hidden costs of cheap raw materials

The importation of illegally-logged timbers is unethical and also threatens Irish jobs

Import substiture: Increased activity in the construction industry will lead to greater demand for home-produced timber products.
Import substiture: Increased activity in the construction industry will lead to greater demand for home-produced timber products.

William Merivale

The economy is apparently starting to recover, or so we're told. Positive reports from a number of different sectors are starting to lift the spirits and there appear to be enough of these reports to confirm this isn't a false dawn.

Certainly the construction sector seems to be moving slowly in the right direction. Hopefully we've learned some valuable lessons from the so-called boom.

Provided we don't fall victim to the same madness that prevailed before the crash a buoyant construction industry will be good for us all, and not least the forestry sector.

It should be remembered that during the boom we imported a great deal of timber. To our great discredit, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Annual Government Barometer Survey, during this period Ireland had the worst record in the EU as an importer of illegally logged timber, in addition to timber from controversial sources.

While imports fell off during the recession, let's hope that now the economy is recovering there won't be a return to the bad old ways.

A common and very disturbing, sight during the building boom, even on public sector construction sites, was the vast amount of Chinese-manufactured plywood used as hoarding. In 2007-8 we imported 150,000 cubic metres of this material, which equates to a stack 10m wide by five high by three kilometres long.

On one occasion Tom Roche of Just Forests, who was instrumental in initiating the first forest certification standard setting process in Ireland, was so incensed by this widespread practice that he obtained samples of plywood from the site of the new civic offices in Mullingar and sent them to a university in Germany for independent analysis.

Here they were found to contain the illegally logged timbers of two species of Indonesian tree high on the endangered species list.

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On another occasion Mr Roche staged a brief hunger strike to highlight the fact that similarly controversial timber was being used in the refurbishment of the public offices of Irish Aid on O'Connell Street, Dublin.

This example was particularly bizarre, given that aid was being dispensed to developing countries from these very offices, while at the same time illegal timber from those same countries was being utilized in their refurbishment.

We are now subject to the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) which requires all traders placing timber on the EU market to implement a set of due diligence measures to ensure that the material is legal.

The purpose of the regulation is to ensure no illegal timber finds its way onto the EU market. Nevertheless examples of cheap, 'throw-away' Chinese-manufactured plywood can still be seen around the country, none of it certified and proven to have been obtained from non-controversial sources.

Despite the fact that the EUTR came into full force in March 2013, many traders are still unaware of it, and I have yet to hear of any inspections.

What is particularly galling about all this, especially to all of us involved in actually growing timber, is that there is a well tried and acceptable alternative, manufactured in Ireland from certified sustainably-produced homegrown timber. We have three functioning panel board mills in this country, two of which are owned by the Irish taxpayer that are competing on the world stage.

As is so often the case, the cheaper option ends up being the more expensive solution, in every sense.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email:

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