The federal government has again delayed enforcing laws to stop the importation of illegally logged timber products - almost five years after they were introduced.
Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of timber products coming into Australia could be from illegally logged forests, but the federal government cannot be sure because most importers are not complying with a five-year-old law.
Enforcement has been delayed again while the government tries to make importers complete legally required paperwork certifying timber is legally logged - prompting calls for penalties to be finally imposed.
Non-compliance can attract criminal charges, millions of dollars in fines and even five years in jail.
Decades of campaigning in Australia against illegal logging saw parliament pass the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in 2012 to stop imports, in line with similar laws in the United States and Europe.
"It brings Australia into line with international standards of developed nations in terms of importing illegal timbers, which has do to with deforestation, habitat degradation and threats to wildlife and nature,” said Distinguished Research Professor Bill Laurance from the Centre for Tropical Biodiversity at James Cook University.
“In fact they're supposed to be implementing the rules" he said. "But there's no real enforcement. Nobody's being fined, there's no jail terms, there's no crackdown."
"It doesn't really take much enforcement. All the government really needs to do is to make examples of a couple of the really egregious sinners, and you'd be amazed how everyone suddenly starts waking up and doing the due diligence," Professor Laurance said.
More time for industry to comply
A so-called enforcement "soft start" for the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act was due to end in May last year but has been extended by the government to give industry more time to comply.
“In no way are we suggesting we want to water down the requirements. Taking a heavy handed approach was not the way we decided to do it,” said Assistant Minister for Agriculture Anne Ruston.
“We have always and remain committed to not importing illegally sourced timber into this country.”
The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission annual report released this week said, “significant increases in the global cost of environmental crime were identified within the illegal harvesting and trade of timber sector”.
“The majority of this crime type is trade-related, characterised by practices such as under-reporting of export volumes, tax evasion, bribery, and altering of species names to co-mingle legal and illegal commodities.
“Australia is primarily a destination country for illegal timber, with previous estimates suggesting up to 10 per cent of imported products contain illegal timber.”
Complex supply chain
China is the world’s largest timber consumer, importing from the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Asia, for processing into manufactured goods from floorboards and furniture to paper.
Australia imports more than $2.5b a year in timber products from China, and Papua New Guinea is one of it's main suppliers of hardwood.
“Overwhelmingly timber exports from Papua New Guinea go to China and then are re-exported to developing nations like Australia,” said professor Lawrence.
But much of PNG’s timber is logged under controversial Special Agriculture Business Leases (SABLs), declared illegal by the courts and cancelled by the government.
“China is not a low-risk country, and hence the level of due diligence that's expected to be undertaken by importers from China is quite high,” Senator Ruston said.
China’s complex supply chains make it difficult for importers to carry out the necessary checks.
“I did visit a factory in China recently. It was quite concerning to me to see product that was illegal harvested on factory floors,” said Patrizia Torelli, chief executive of the Australian Furniture Association .
Under the Australian law, the onus is on business to show they have done the due diligence to ensure the products they are importing use legally-sourced wood.
“It's not overly onerous, it's more about understanding the information that they need to get from their suppliers,” Ms Torelli said.
An Agriculture department review released in February of Australia's 512 biggest importers found "non-compliance to be at 59 per cent, this was largely inadvertent”.
"It is estimated that each year up to $400 million of Australia's forest products imports come from sources with some risk of being illegally logged,” the department said.
Senator Ruston says regulatory changes in consultation with industry will be ready “shortly”.
“Most were compliant in not bringing in illegally sourced timber, just most weren't compliant in the transparency of the process to be able to demonstrate that was the case,” senator Ruston said.
“It’s more of a chain-of-custody, paperwork issue.
“We’ve extended it [soft start] until we’ve finalised any changes we want to make. We hope it’s resolved fully in this financial year.”
Professor Laurance gave evidence to an federal government inquiry into the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act before it became law in 2012.
After five years of non-enforcement he is frustrated.
“Illegal logging defrauds developing nations of critical revenues, which they need for health and education, it unfairly competes with Australian producers because they’re stealing timbers, so no paying royalties” said professor Lawrance.
“So nature loses, developing nations lose, Australian businesses lose. It's really bad all the way round,” he said.