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The U.S. Lacey Act: Good for Forests, Good for Jobs

By: Anne Middleton, Environmental Investigation Agency

Added: Oct 5, 2011

The amended U.S. Lacey Act is the world's first ban on commerce of illegally sourced plants and plant products, making our country the global leader in fighting illegal logging and the illegal timber trade.  It's absurd that any news source would describe the Lacey Act as a law that hurts American workers, when the Lacey Act was passed in part to help ensure that U.S. producers are operating on a level playing field. The wood sector itself has estimated that illegally logged supply undercuts and costs U.S. industry $1 billion annually, which has a real impact on American companies and the jobs they provide.

The recent media on Gibson Guitars has brought the Lacey Act straight into the spotlight.  This is the second enforcement action against the company, known best for its iconic Les Paul electric guitars.  Here are a few facts on the Gibson case:

  • The "raid" was not a raid: no SWAT teams were involved, no doors were busted in, and no guns were unsheathed. FWS and Customs agents are armed in the course of all their regular duties. They knocked on the door of Gibson facility in their polo shirt uniforms asked to be let in, in the same way they would execute any search warrant. We understand that their weapons were holstered the entire time. Traffic cops are actually more heavily armed when they stop you for a speeding ticket.
  • The wood in question is not FSC-certified. The FSC has issued a statement in response to the 24 August action in which it states, "Not all the wood Gibson Guitar Corporation uses is FSC certified. This story is about the non-certified wood."
  • Gibson is still under investigation in connection with its import of ebony from Madagascar. The government has stated that criminal charges are likely. A researcher at the Missouri Botanical Gardens described Madagascar precious woods to the Wall Street Journal as "the equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds," as loggers have invaded national parks to seek the last remaining ebony and rosewood.
  • Illegally sourced wood costs less to bring to market because bad actors do not pay their full share for labor, tariffs, or royalties.  In many cases, timber is blatantly stolen from source countries to be laundered in the global marketplace. According to a study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), it costs large forest concessionaires $85/ m3 to harvest, process and deliver legal timber to mills, compared to $32/m3 for illegal timber.(1)  Similarly, small forest concessionaires pay $46/m3 for legal wood to a mill, whereas illegal harvesting operations spend approximately $5/m3 to deliver timber to mills.

    Hence, it's no surprise that the vast majority of American industry supports this law. Over 50 trade associations, non-profits, and unions, representing the entire range of the US economy, have signed statements supporting the Lacey Act's passage and proper implementation.  Other major guitar companies are on record strongly supporting it.

    The Lacey Act protects forests and promotes the rule of law around the world: The Act's intent is to support the rule of law through mutual respect, and to ensure that American businesses and consumers are not contributing to illegal activity or environmental harm in our own country or overseas.  As a writer for The Economist opined, "importing illegal tropical hardwoods is, well, illegal, for very good reasons. Small businesses like Gibson Guitar create jobs in part because customers trust them to use wood inlays that don't come from pillaging old-growth forests and driving lemurs extinct."

    So how, exactly, does this monumental piece of legislation affect the paper industry?  The amendments to the Lacey Act do three basic things which affect all people in the paper and print business:

  • Prohibits trade in illegally sourced plants and plant products (i.e. paper) in the US. An "illegal plant" is one taken, harvested, transported, or possessed in violation of any state or foreign law.
  • US importers of pulp and paper will likely soon be required to declare scientific name, country of harvest origin, value, and volume of their plant(s) and plant product(s). It would be wise to start collecting this information now.
  • Establishes strict penalties for violating the law such as forfeiture, fines, and jail time.
  • In plain English, if you deal in wood or fiber anywhere along the supply chain, you need to be able to answer basic questions about what it is, where it came from, and how you acquired it--as the underlying prohibition in trade in illegally sourced wood affects YOU.  Even if you or your company is not the importer of record, you can still be held liable for illegalities that occurred on the supply chain prior to your possession.  In addition, the companies to whom you sell and distribute products might ask you if your products meet the requirements of the Lacey Act.

    Supply chains, as you know, can be long and complicated. Many wood products exported to the US from China, Vietnam, the European Union, Mexico, etc, are made with wood fiber imported from a third country. The Lacey Act applies equally to these products.  If you or someone further back in your supply chain committed an underlying violation then trading or selling that product in the US could trigger a Lacey Act violation.  Check out how fiber analysis is being used to track origins of paper products.

    So how can one tell if his or her product if of illegal origin? Three words: know your suppliers.  Check with your buddies in the industry and see who they trust (or who they don't trust).  Establish long-term relationships rather than buying on spot markets. Make site visits if possible, do independent research on-line and through your business contacts, and ask tough questions.   Again, it is critical that you know (and trust) your suppliers and simplify your supply chains.

    What can you do? 

    • Call your Senator and Representative. Tell them you support the Lacey Act and want to see it actively enforced.
    • Sign this petition 
    • Ask Questions, Demand Answers: What's in your paper?  Where does it come from?

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    Anne Middleton is the Forest Campaigner Outreach Coordinator with the Environmental Investigation Agency. Read more about this issue or contact Anne at their website.

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    References:  (1) Tacconi, L; Kyrstof, O.; Ferdinandus, A., Lessons to Promote Forest Certification and Control Illegal Logging in Indonesia, CIFOR. 11. 

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    The Paper Planet is a forum for diverse views and the opinions expressed are those of the contributor of the article, and not necessarily the view of all member organizations or of the Environmental Paper Network.

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