On March 25, 2019, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a report revealing the results of a four-year undercover investigation of illegal timber trafficking from Gabon and Republic of Congo. The video recordings and other materials have been shared with federal officials and show that at least some of the illegal timber found its way to the Pacific Northwest. The EIA found evidence of bribery and other illicit activity in the supply chain of a hardwood timber veneer known as okoume, which was sold domestically by companies in Washington and Oregon. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that it had launched an investigation into the illegal import of tropical hardwood by Northwest companies. This report is a good reminder that the international trade of exotic timber is often regulated, and can sometimes be simply prohibited, under the regulatory regime of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This article provides a brief overview of CITES and its permitting system, as well as penalties associated with illegal trade of exotic products in the U.S.
CITES: Permits Required for Trade in Wildlife
CITES entered into force in 1975 and has proven to be one the most robust international regulatory regimes. The aim of CITES is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES counts 183 parties today, is legally binding, and provides for the adoption of trade sanctions against non-compliant parties. Importantly, CITES applies to "specimens" of fauna and flora, which is defined broadly to mean "any animal or plant, whether alive or dead," and "any readily recognizable part or derivative thereof."
The most important parts of CITES are found at Articles III, IV, V, which provide the necessary findings to be made before import or export permits are granted. CITES lists endangered species in different appendices depending on their conservation status and vulnerability to trade. Appendix I species, for example, cannot be imported for commercial purposes. The relevant authorities of the country of import must also be satisfied that the import will not be detrimental to the survival of the species and that the proposed recipient of a living specimen is suitably equipped to house and care for it. Some species of Rosewood are listed in Appendix I. Appendix II species can generally be traded for commercial purposes, but still require an export permit from the country of export, accompanied by a finding that the trade will not be detrimental to the species and that the recipient of a living specimen is suitably equipped to house and care for it.
National Implementation of CITES
Parties generally implement CITES' permitting scheme in their own legal system. In the U.S., regulations are found at 50 C.F.R. § 10-24. The Lacey Act, 18 U.S.C. § 42-43, provides the penalties associated with illegal trade of endangered species of fauna and flora. Anyone who imports or exports fish, wildlife or plants in violation of U.S. law is liable to pay a fine of not more than $20,000 and/or imprisonment for not more than five years. Each violation is a separate offense, making penalties potentially quite significant. The agency issuing CITES permits and certificates is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Avoiding CITES Violations
Companies trading internationally in timber species that are listed in Appendix I or II of CITES should always make sure that the goods have the necessary permits. Even if an import permit is not needed for Appendix II species, an export permit must be issued by the country of export and the importer should be sure that a valid export permit has been granted and signed by the Management Authority of the country of export. To import Appendix I species, the importer must obtain a Fish and Wildlife Service import permit, and the import cannot be for primarily commercial purposes. More information about how to obtain a permit can be found here.
Companies should also pay particular attention to petitions to list or up-list species of timber at CITES meetings, as CITES is an evolving convention and its appendices are often updated. For more information on this topic, please contact Olivier Jamin, 503.778.5346.