At-risk timber: A conversation about forced labor in the building materials supply chain

Rod Khattabi
Chief Accountability Officer and Justice Initiative Director, Grace Farms Foundation

Mark Fowler
Nature Initiative Director, Grace Farms Foundation

Meredith Gore, Ph.D.
Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Maryland

Rod – Meredith and Mark, we have been looking into wood being imported into the U.S. from countries that are known to be at high risk for forced labor. Illegal logging is not just associated with modern slavery, but also with other illicit activities such as militias, child soldiers, organized crime, and terrorist outfits. What do we know about the impact of illegal logging in general?

Meredith – As a scientist, I have active projects in Vietnam, Mexico, and the U.S., and I have gained extensive experience with Madagascar, home to a number of forests with protected tree species like Rosewood. Loggers indiscriminately cut into forests to get to that valuable protected hardwood, leading to irreversible environmental degradation and worker exploitation.

Mark – Between 50-90% of all tropical timber is illegally and unsustainably logged. That massive number should give us all a reason to insist on certified, sustainably-managed timber and to be intentional about it.

Rod – According to KnowTheChain, timber ranks as the fifth largest imported commodity that is at risk of being processed with forced labor. They also estimate that up to 50% of illegal logging globally is dependent on forced labor.

Mark – Forced labor also represents a major issue in South America, with a huge percentage of timber being harvested illegally in areas like Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Traditionally, the indigenous populations protected the land. However, they are now being forced off their lands and into slavery-like conditions where they are obliged to cut down their own forests to benefit these criminal enterprises.

This is not just an overseas problem. In the U.S., we have witnessed instances in which timber was cut from endangered rainforests, shipped to China for processing and repackaging, and then put on the market by retailers such as Lowe’s and Lumber Liquidators.

Rod – China is one of the top importers of wood globally, and according to The World Bank,7 the U.S. is the world’s second largest importer of wood from high risk countries for modern slavery and illegal logging, like Brazil. It seems that recently, a few years back, China shifted its import strategy from sourcing illegal wood in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam by sending many of its traders to Africa. Have you noticed this phenomenon Meredith?

Meredith – When I travel to Madagascar, I see it. The logs are stockpiled into large piles on the beach in these depots, sometimes in a port city. Then they are shipped east on container ships to places like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, where they are offloaded onto trucks, and they might even be commingled with legal commodities. This is an organized, systematic, well-oiled machine.

Rod – Right. And from my experience investigating organized crime, you can’t just enter a forest, cut all this wood, then transport it, get it to port, and ship it without somewhat complicit governmental and local authority involvement.

So, how can we stop this phenomenon? What can the architecture firms and companies do to ensure that they are using their purchasing power to procure slave-free building materials?

Meredith – I believe that there are three things that the U.S. and the private sector can do to try to reduce their involvement in perpetuating illegal logging: gain awareness about the sourcing of products and their supply chains; collaborate by bringing together key stakeholders such as the private sector, scientists, foundations, and law enforcement agencies to better understand the big picture; and harness usable and meaningful data to inform policies and interventions that can disrupt the illegal supply chain.

Mark – One of the proposed solutions is to explore new sources. We do not need to travel to Asia, Africa, or the Amazon to get tropical wood; we can find substitutes like Black Locust, which is native to the U.S. and looks and feels like a nice tropical timber. If we sustainably manage our own forests, we can extract timber and actually create thriving local and regional economies. We also need to think about “mass timber.” Cross-lamination Timber (CLT) is a way to harness the potential of woods like Hemlock which, for instance, has been relegated to pallet-making.

Meredith – I am so glad that you mentioned CLT. Michigan State University is building a major facility for STEM teaching and learning made out of cross-laminated timber — the first of its kind in the U.S. It will be a flagship example of the power of glue-laminated timber, which is providing a new market for sustainably-produced timber by encouraging forest owners to keep their woodlands growing.

Mark – CLT in many cases is stronger than concrete, without its massive carbon emission related problems. It’s even carbon-negative (not only absorbing carbon during its growth, but then trapping it into the building).
We can create products that are more ethical, with far superior inputs, and that are not criminal or in violation of human rights.

Rod – And it is hard work to prevent this crime from happening. There is no quick fix for this. This represents an ongoing monitoring effort, with human rights policies enforced upon suppliers … and to even know one’s suppliers in the first place! Construction companies and architects should ask up-front for the source of the wood and conditions of production. If suppliers become evasive or reluctant to look into their supply chain, this should raise a real red flag. In the new regulatory environment, that sort of willful blindness can no longer be tolerated just because a given supplier has offered good prices in the past. Warding off the seizure of materials or the reputational risk from using slave-made goods on a project is just good business.

Meredith – In my opinion, without proper due diligence, your supply chain may be easily exploited by some nefarious actor. I think that it is critically important for leaders in the built environment to understand the interconnections that exist between their bottom line and these broader security issues posed by natural resource and human exploitation. It is possible to engage in best practices and still have a very healthy bottom line. It just takes a little bit of proactivity and engagement.

Rod – Whether we are optimists or pessimists, we are in a race against time to stop this forced labor and environmental disaster. While we can raise awareness, we need action, and real cross-sectoral collaboration. That includes the public sector, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations, all working together to advance justice.

Source: Verité and Global Forest Atlas, Grace Farms analysis

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