03/03/2013 05:39 GMT | Updated 01/05/2013 06:12 BST

Illegal Wood Gets the Chop From Europe

A landmark piece of environmental law is coming into effect. From Sunday 3 March for the first time ever legislation across all 27 EU member countries bans the import, sale or commercial use of illegally sourced timber and wood products.

It's a big step forward for protecting the world's precious tropical forests - and the people and wildlife that depend on them. But there's still a lot to do.

The new EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) is intended to make companies accountable for the timber and wood products they buy and use.

Anyone involved in importing, manufacturing or selling timber-derived goods will now be legally obliged to show they've carefully checked their sources - what's known as due diligence. UK authorities can now confiscate illegal timber and prosecute importers who haven't properly assessed the risks of it being illegal.

At the moment the UK is estimated to be one of the top three importers of illegal timber and wood products in the EU.

Timber could be illegal if it has contravened one or more laws in the country of origin - that could mean it was logged without a licence, or in a protected area, or stolen from another property, or traded without paying taxes or charges.

Illegally logged wood undermines economies in some of the world's poorest countries, as well as threatening precious rainforests and rare animals, including the orang-utan and gorilla in Indonesia and the Congo Basin. Not to mention the significant contribution that deforestation makes to carbon emissions and climate change.

Of course the legislation isn't the end of the story - it needs to be implemented and adopted effectively. I'm optimistic but know that's not straightforward.

There's been a mad scramble by all EU countries to get the regulation in place for the 3 March deadline. The UK and Denmark are ready but many others aren't. The sanctions and penalties vary too, from criminal prosecution to fines.

The legislation may only be as good as the weakest link in the chain - there's the risk that illegal timber might still be imported into EU through the country with the weakest controls and then distributed from there.

There are also some worrying anomalies when it comes to the products actually covered by the new law. WWF's own research shows that just 47 of the 150 subheadings of timber-based products are within the scope of the EUTR.

Members of our Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) - the WWF-led partnership of 300+ companies, communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs (many of whom have been regulating their own timber supplies for years) - have told us of their concerns.

Some of the omissions in the law seem like obvious mistakes. For instance, wooden tables are covered by the law but wooden chairs aren't. Wooden tools, kitchenware and books published outside the EU aren't included either.

There were actually only meant to be two officially agreed exemptions - recycled/recovered fibre and packaging carrying another product. But a couple of last-minute concessions - pretty significant ones - were also wrung by the relevant industries, namely printed material and musical instruments.

I sincerely hope the new EUTR legislation, and other similar measures already up and running in the US and Australia, will go at least some way to protecting the world's remaining pristine forests.

But I'm pleased to say that some of the key timber-producing countries in the tropics are taking action themselves to ensure that their timber production is legal. But we desperately need to get countries like China, India, Brazil and Japan to put better forest and timber management controls in place soon too. Otherwise there's the risk that the EU manufacturers who have to comply with the new laws will feel they're being discriminated against.

In the meantime, the best assurance is still to look for the FSC symbol on wood or paper-based products - this certification from the Forest Stewardship Council tells you the wood in a product is not only legal, but it's produced to the highest available environmental and social standards.