Leading green label and Europe’s biggest furniture retailers linked to torture-stained Belarusian wood trade

25.11.2022

  • Investigation shows European furniture buyers are being made unwittingly complicit in torture of political prisoners in Belarus, with forced prison labour supplying their goods.
  • Belarus’ prison service is country’s largest timber company, using forced labour to make a variety of wood products destined for export.
  • Dictator Alexander Lukashenko personally profits from the tainted trade which has continued despite his participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Destruction of precious forests taking place on a grand scale with over 1 million cubic metres of logs cut each year from national parks.
  • Investigation shows world-leading ethical wood label FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) in dire need of reform, while urgent action is needed by EU, UK and US governments to halt imports.     

November 25, 2022 – Europe’s largest furniture retail chains are linked to the forced labour and torture of political prisoners in Belarus, as well as the destruction of some of Europe’s last primeval forests, an investigation can reveal.

The report Rubber-stamping Repression, by London-based environmental group Earthsight, shockingly details how sales of this tainted furniture across Europe have for years lined the pockets of the country’s brutal dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, while the continuing trade aids Russian terror in Ukraine, in which Belarus is heavily complicit.

Earthsight’s investigation connected the use of forced prison labour to furniture sold at almost every major furniture retail chain in Europe, including IKEA, leading French furniture retail chain BUT and Austria-headquartered furniture group XXXLutz, the second largest furniture retailer on the continent. IKEA furniture linked to the scandal has also been sold in the US.

Belarus’s prison service is the country’s largest timber company, using the forced labour of 8,000 inmates to harvest trees and process them into a wide range of wood products, including furniture, for export.

Flawed green labels the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and PEFC approved this activity while European governments refused for years to implement sanctions which could end the scandalous trade, and are now even breaking their own laws in allowing it to continue.

Exports are fed in part by logging taking place within Belarus’s National Parks, which are under the direct control of the Presidential Property Management Directorate (PPMD), Lukashenko’s private slush fund. The PPMD was until recently being run by Lukashenko’s right-hand man, Viktor Sheiman, long accused by the EU of arranging the ‘disappearance’ of the President’s political opponents.

Documents uncovered by Earthsight reveal that over 1 million cubic metres of logs are being cut in these protected areas each year, leading to deforestation of the Belarusian portion of the world famous Bialowieza Forest - home to rare European bison, lynx and wolves.

Earthsight Director Sam Lawson said: “European consumers will be horrified to learn that their purchases of sofas and other furniture may be linked to the torture of political prisoners and destruction of primeval forests, while also serving to bankroll one of warmonger Putin’s closest allies.

“The EU, UK and US governments must act urgently to address this scandal by expanding existing sanctions on Belarus, improving enforcement of existing laws banning imports of wood sourced illegally, and passing additional legislation forcing companies to conduct due diligence to prevent human rights and environmental abuses throughout their supply chains.”

Past and current political prisoners interviewed by Earthsight testified to torture and maltreatment, compulsory work in woodshops and terrible working conditions.

One of the biggest prisons involved in this trade is the notorious Bobruisk Penal Colony No. 2, where former Presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov was imprisoned and tortured after protesting the rigged re-election of President Lukashenko in 2010. Ales Bialiatski, the imprisoned Belarusian human rights activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2022, was also once held and subjected to forced labour and maltreatment there.

Another is Penal Colony No. 5, situated 300km due west of Bobruisk, in the small city of Ivatsevichy. Prisoners and multiple sources inside government told Earthsight that the prisons are closely connected to two large state-owned timber mills, providing them with semi-processed wood, raw materials and cheap forced labour.

Sources and other documentation uncovered show that these state-owned timber mills supply the big European furniture retailers, either directly or indirectly.

Lawson stated: “Earthsight is calling for urgent reform of green labels FSC and PEFC, which greenwashed both the PPMD forests and the prisons as ‘sustainable’ sources of wood for western markets. Some of the prisons had their certificates issued in late 2020 despite the widespread imprisonment and torture of pro-democracy protestors in Belarus having already made worldwide headlines.”

After Belarus’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, IKEA voluntarily halted all purchases from Belarus or use of Belarusian timber in March 2022. Following a viral campaign led by Ukrainian activists demanding formal sanctions on wood and boycotts by green labels PEFC and FSC, the EU also banned imports of timber from Belarus, and FSC and PEFC pulled all their certificates. However, imports of furniture are not yet subject to sanctions, and timber also is still free to enter the UK and US. European firms continue to import millions of euros a week of Belarusian wood furniture and parts.

An EU law, the EU Timber Regulation, demands importers conduct due diligence to ensure their wood product purchases were legally sourced. In April, the European Commission announced that compliance with this law with regard to Belarus was now ‘impossible’, and said that EU firms must halt imports, regardless of whether they were covered by sanctions.

Earthsight found 20 different EU member states have continued to register imports of Belarusian wood furniture since the April announcement, with the largest volumes destined for Poland, Lithuania, Germany and France.

Ends

Notes to editors:

Earthsight is a UK-based non-profit organisation that uses in-depth investigations to expose environmental and social crime, injustice and the links to global consumption.

The report can be read here. It includes full company responses to Earthsight’s findings.

Photos, video and infographics can be downloaded here.

 For more information please contact: Clare Sterling at claresterling@earthsight.org.uk, Mob/Signal/WhatsApp +44 7808 725096.

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