Japan, the world’s fourth-largest buyer of timber products, needs to introduce laws and stricter oversight to stamp out imports of illegally logged wood, according to the activist group Environmental Investigation Agency.

The country’s laws do not require private buyers of foreign timber to ensure it was legally logged nor do they provide for penalties for failing to do so, the Washington- and London-based group said in a report this week.

This has led to illegally cut wood in Russia being exported to Japan via Chinese processing plants, the EIA said.

Japan’s reliance on Russian wood for furniture, flooring and construction materials has set off a boom in illegal logging in Russia’s Far East, the EIA said after conducting a multi-year probe that traced the timber supply chain to buyers in Japan. At least 50 percent of wood logged in eastern Russia is done so illegally via falsified permits or overharvesting, the environmental group said.

The illegal trade has depressed global timber prices by as much as 16 percent, Kate Horner, director of forest campaigns at the EIA, said in an interview in Tokyo, citing research by the American Forests and Paper Association.

“Japan must take decisive and immediate action to close its market to the cheap, illegal timber that is undercutting both its domestic forestry operations as well as the forests and livelihoods of its trading partners,” EIA said in the report.

With the timber increasingly being collected by Chinese firms for processing before sale to Japan, origins of the wood become obscured, the EIA said. Buyers need to be more diligent in checking the origin of timber, something the Japanese laws do not encourage, the agency said.

Japan has received similar criticism in the past and is looking at the regulations introduced by other nations, said Daiji Kawaguchi, deputy director at the wood products trade office of the Forestry Agency. The government doesn’t currently plan to change timber import laws, he said.

“We’re not doing nothing, there are steps being taken,” Kawaguchi said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re behind the U.S. or Europe. We just have a different approach. Japan’s not the only country where illegal timber comes in. We need to look at coordinated efforts to tackle the issue.”

Russian supply made up about 20 percent of Chinese timber imports, or about 18 million cu. meters last year, she said.

Japan, where Russian timber is used for house frames, was the second-largest buyer of wood products from China, importing $1.2 billion worth of furniture and $1.5 billion of other wood products last year, Horner said.

As Russian timber is mixed in with wood from other nations during manufacture, it’s impossible to determine the percentage of material from illegal sources that China exports to Japan, she said.

While Japan was among the first industrialized nations to pass legislation that obliged compliance checks on the origin of wood products, its 2005 Green Purchasing Law only applies to public works contracts, the EIA said. That means the law does not apply to more than 95 percent of timber purchases, it said.

Illegal logging is often done by teams of five to 10 men in Russia and exported using falsified permits, Horner said.

“It also hinders the development of sustainable, long-term wood products manufacturing in Russia, China and Japan, as cheap illegal timber artificially drives down prices, threatening the viability of all companies that are playing by the rules,” the EIA said in the report.

Siberian pine directly competes with domestic wood products in Japan, the EIA said. Without illegal timber imports demand for domestic wood would rise by about 13 percent, Horner said, citing a study by Hosei University.

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