Exploring Policy Options in China to Stem the Illegal Timber Trade

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Forest Department Director of Inspection in Myanmar gestures towards confiscated illegal timber. SOURCE: Blue Moon Fund and Global Environmental Institute

Forest Department Director of Inspection in Myanmar gestures towards confiscated illegal timber. SOURCE: Blue Moon Fund and Global Environmental Institute

The U.S.-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law (PEL), in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), recently completed an initial report on our pioneering research into the international regulation of illegal timber trade, with a focus on the China’s transnational policy dynamics.

The regulation of illegal timber trade is a significant component of the international community’s effort to embed international economic activities within sustainable social and environmental practices. This vexing issue of international trade regulation is part of the larger controversy over management of globalization in order to maintain environmental integrity and social stability.  Therefore, illegal timber trade can be viewed as a case-in-point of one of the overarching challenges of our time.

The report confronted one of the most challenging international regulatory ventures of our time: how to nudge the Chinese government to create and implement an effective transnational timber legality assurance regime, in order to exclude illegal timber from its market as a pipeline into global supply chains. This, however, is a venture into little-known waters. Not only because the growing anti-globalization trend in recent years is changing the status quo of the existing international legal and institutional infrastructures, but also because the Chinese government is a “new variable” in the policy domain of international economic regulation — its behavioral pattern and policy preferences remain indefinite and unknown for many.

Targeting not merely the “rules on paper” but instead the “rules in action,” our researchers adopted a methodology of systemic thinking, seeking to understand and restructure the policy rationale of the Chinese government. The restructured policy rationale, in turn, served as a solid foundation for the proposed legal infrastructures of new rules and institutions.

The research was based on a three-component analysis framed by the “Field and Habitus” theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This type of framed analysis seeks to profile the behavioral patterns and policy preferences of the Chinese government within the political economy of the transnational timber trade to identify realistic strategies that China might respond to. Through this analysis our research team identified strategic opportunities to incorporate environmental interests into this global trade market and explored the comparative advantages and disadvantages of potential policy options for the Chinese government to assure trade-related timber legality.

In May 2017, our PEL research team released this report at a conference held by TNC at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environment. The report was acclaimed by key international environmental NGOs working in the field, as well as by the Chinese Academy of Forestry and State Forestry Administration. “PEL has provided their invaluable and insightful ideas to this project, which helped lay a good foundation to engage other key actors and identify incentives in promoting timber legality regulatory activities,” remarked by Ke Oester from TNC.

PEL hopes to continue this joint mission with TNC to help transnational environmental policy practitioners understand the forces transforming the global economy, identify strategic locations, discover potential buy-in from various stakeholders, and promote collective policy responses to move the global economy towards a more sustainable future.

Post by PEL’s MELP Fellow Sheng Sun.

 

Main global trade flows of roundwood and sawnwood at high risk of illegality, 2014 (million USD). SOURCE: IUFRO, 2016

Main global trade flows of roundwood and sawnwood at high risk of illegality, 2014 (million USD). SOURCE: IUFRO, 2016

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