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EU hopes special licensing will help save Indonesian forests

The EU said Thursday that Indonesia is the first country to qualify for the licenses. It will mean that traders of goods such as wooden furniture, plywood and paper that earn the certification will find it easier to do business with Europe.

But some environmental and civil society groups are already concerned the licensing system could become a conduit for illegal timber from a country where tropical forests are being cut down at an epic rate.

The EU has been trying to implement its timber system internationally for over a decade and over the same time Indonesia has developed its own legal wood verification scheme that has become a key part of its admission to the EU’s program.

“We do believe the system is credible,” said Charles-Michel Geurts, deputy head of the EU mission to Indonesia, who emphasized the lengthy process to establish it reflected substantial effort in countering deep-seated problems in Indonesia’s forestry industry. “But today is the start date, not the finish.”

Indonesia has struggled for years to combat illegal logging that destroys the tropical forest habitat of unique animal species and deprives the government of significant revenue that could be used to improve basic services for a largely poor population of more than 250 million.

A study by the country’s anti-corruption commission estimated that the commercial value of undeclared logging amounted to US$60.7 billion to US$81.4 billion between 2003 and 2014. The study released in October last year said official statistics on timber production capture less than a quarter of what is cut down.

Fires deliberately set by agricultural conglomerates and small-time farmers to clear forests and peatland for plantations also contribute to deforestation and are responsible for the unhealthy haze that chokes a swathe of Indonesia and neighboring countries each year.

Under the EU system, Indonesia will be able to issue the special licenses to producers using timber that it believes complies with environmental, social and economic laws. Third party certifiers issue the licenses and the overall process will be monitored by environmental groups. Indonesia will be able to issue the licenses from Nov. 15, the EU announced Thursday.