By James Grubel and David Fogarty
CANBERRA/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australia's parliament on Monday passed laws to ban the import and trade of illegally logged timber, joining the United States and European Union in clamping down on a global trade in stolen timber that Interpol says is worth about $30 billion a year.
The laws, five years in the making, impose fines, jail and forfeiture of goods and oblige importers to carry out mandatory due diligence on timber and timber products sourced from overseas.
"The illegal timber trade is a trade that benefits no one. It risks jobs, it risks the timber industry, and it risks the environment," Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig said.
Every year an area the size of Ireland is illegally cleared in an industry that fuels crime and conflict, destroys livelihoods of forest communities, triggers landslides, pollutes rivers and releases large amounts of carbon emissions.
"The Australian government can raise its head high for following the United States in progressive legislation aimed to stop the ongoing trade in illegal timber products," Reece Turner, forests campaigner for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, told Reuters.
The government says about 10 percent of the more than A$4 billion ($4.12 billion) of timber imported annually is illegal and that illegal logging globally causes environmental and social damage estimated at $60 billion a year.
Greenpeace says high-risk products include outdoor furniture, decking and plywood made from tropical hardwood species.
Green groups, governments and some in the timber industry have been pushing for laws to tackle the trade in stolen wood as the world's tropical forests shrink.
Illegal timber depresses prices, slashes margins and can deter firms from investing in better due diligence.
There were sound commercial and environmental reasons to support the laws, said Ross Hearne, general manager of corporate services for Kimberly-Clark Australia and New Zealand, which makes various products from paper.
"We face cheap paper imports in Australia and one of the factors in cheap imports is illegally harvested timber," he told Reuters, adding supporting the bill had helped protect the firm's brand.
Telling illegal and legal wood and wood products apart is impossible by sight alone, making it relatively easy to mislabel origin and forge import documents.
THREAT OF JAIL TIME
Tougher laws and forcing firms to scrutinize supplies more thoroughly is regarded as a key way to clean up the global timber trade, worth more than $150 billion a year.
The Australian laws impose a maximum penalty of five years jail and a fine of A$275,000 for a company or $55,000 for an individual if they knowingly, recklessly import or process illegally logged timber products.
Amendments to the U.S. Lacey Act in 2008 ban trade in illegally sourced timber, wood and paper products within the United States and internationally. Failure to comply means fines, jail time and forfeiture of goods.
From next year, the European Union will apply much tougher rules as well.
Greenpeace, which has been working with the Australian government and industry in developing the laws, says due diligence provisions for importers are being developed and will be enacted in the next 12 to 18 months.
"The biggest outstanding question is how the government will ensure these laws are enforced. We know that unscrupulous companies and individuals continue to import illegal timber," Turner said.
Winners from the laws, apart from forest communities, will be firms that provide timber legality and verification services and timber importers that have already put in place tougher timber sourcing and tracking rules.
One potential winner is DNA testing and timber tracking technology developed by Singapore-based Double Helix Tracking Technologies and used by Australian client Simmonds Lumber, one of the country's largest timber importers.
DNA tests can pinpoint the species and origin of a piece of timber. DoubleHelix, as it is known, can also track timber and timber products from forest to shop to ensure clients' shipments are legal.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)