Logging in Irkutsk Oblast, Russia.
Customs records obtained by Earthsight show G7 countries have imported timber and wood products worth more than $2.9 billion from Russia and Belarus since the conflict began. The European Union, the G7’s biggest market for such products, and United Kingdom have since introduced sanctions banning most such imports. But loopholes remain for some key products. Meanwhile, the trade remains legal in America, Canada and Japan.
According to the customs records, the biggest remaining flows of so-called “conflict timber” are Russian shipments of lumber to Japan and plywood to America, respectively. There were also notable EU imports of wood furniture from Belarus. Forestry is one of Russia’s most important pre-war industries after oil and gas. The country is the world’s largest timber exporter, holding the greatest area of forests on the planet. Its ally Belarus is also hugely dependent on revenues from wood.
The sector is closely tied to the ruling regimes Russia and Belarus. Forests in both are all state-owned, some of those in Russia directly by the military. Earthsight’s previous reports have shown that state authorities, or billionaire oligarchs closely tied to them, own the largest processors and exporters of wood and similar products made from trees cut in these sites.
Officials and lawmakers in G7 nations can’t plead ignorance about this trade. In fact, they were warned about it shortly after Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border in a multipronged attack that included staging posts in Belarus.
Barely a week later, more than 120 NGOs including Earthsight and activists from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, among other countries, published an open letter calling on Western countries to ban imports of timber from Russia and Belarus, as well as wood products including pulp, paper and wood furniture. The two leading international timber certification bodies also left the two countries, with one calling these products “conflict timber”.
logging site in Irkutsk Oblast, Russia.
And yet, without further sanctions, G7 countries are set to import a further $420 million of so-called “conflict timber” this year.1
This is just the customs value. “Conflict timber” is worth far more at retail. Last week, Earthsight revealed that US domestic sales of Russian plywood imported since the conflict began had topped $1.2bn. We also found that suppliers of this plywood include firms part-owned by Russian oligarchs who met with Putin the day of the invasion. Plywood went untouched in the US’s latest sanctions package announced to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion, which hiked tariffs on many other Russian products.
Elsewhere, in Europe, EU countries including G7 members Germany, France and Italy continued to receive pulp and paper from Russia until December last year – a glaring omission in the bloc’s early sanctions on Russian goods.
Earthsight’s analysis of trade records shows this pulp and paper came from just two Russian firms, both oligarch-owned. Earthsight previously reported that the largest of the two companies, Ilim Group, has been sourcing illegal wood from protected forests crucial for the planet’s climate.
The EU finally halted all wood product imports from Russia in January this year, closing the loophole that had allowed pulp and paper to enter the bloc. But the sanctions still do not cover wood furniture. Millions of euros worth of wood furniture trundles into the EU each month from Belarus, much of it to Germany. An Earthsight exposé published in November revealed how these imports help swell a slush fund run by Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko, the man known as “Europe’s last dictator”. Some products are also made using the forced labour of political prisoners. Our investigation traced this furniture to some of Europe’s largest retail chains. Though the major retailers promised action after our report was published, as did German authorities, the latest German customs data shows imports continued regardless the following month.
In comments to Earthsight, one Ukrainian activist described the profits Western companies are making from their business dealings in wood from Russia and Belarus as “blood money”.
It is high time the trade in “conflict timber” was stopped. Earthsight and its friends in Ukraine are calling on the G7 countries to urgently address this shocking gap in the international sanctions regime. Specifically, we are calling for:
1 Based on levels of trade in December 2022, not including EU imports of pulp and paper from Russia for which sanctions took effect in January 2023.