How UK timber imports are bad for people and planet

UK imports are driving deforestation in Malaysia at the expense of local people and rainforests. Find out why we need a new law to hold businesses to account.
  Published:  09 Mar 2023    |      3 minute read

What’s happening to forests in Malaysia?

Imagine waking up one morning and finding that the forest where you live, that you depend on for gathering food and fishing, and where your family has lived for centuries, has been designated as a logging concession where trees can be cut down for timber. No one’s asked you about your land, and you’re not allowed to speak out.

Our forest is our bank, our supermarket, our hospital. Without a forest [we] cannot survive.

Komeok Joe, leader of Keruan and Penan community elder

This is exactly what’s happened to Indigenous communities in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. For several decades, their home has been under threat from Samling, a Malaysian timber and palm oil company. And Sarawak has seen devastating levels of deforestation in recent years, losing 27% of its tree cover between 2000 and 2021.

That’s why Indigenous activists joined UK supporters at Tate Modern in January 2023 to mourn the destruction of their rainforest and highlight the threat of logging.

The solidarity ritual ceremony and ash blessing took place at Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu, a tribute to the world’s lost rainforests and their inhabitants. Participants then processed across London to Buckingham Palace, bearing letters to the UK government and King Charles. The letters called for an end to UK timber imports from Malaysia, which can be misleadingly certified as sustainable.

Why isn’t Malaysian timber sustainable?

Logging has a huge impact on forests, wildlife and local people. As the Sarawak communities wrote in their letter: "The logging drives out the animals [...] Logging activities pollute our rivers and streams which we use for drinking water. The logging erodes the land and the rivers […] the rivers rise after heavy rain and flood our villages like never before.”

In Malaysia, timber is certified as meeting environmental and ethical standards through the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS). But the MTCS is ultimately an exercise in greenwashing.

“Greenwashing” is a marketing ploy used by companies to make themselves seem environmentally friendly, even when they're not.

As the public's awareness of environmental issues increases, more and more sectors are keen to promote their green credentials. Fast fashion and fossil fuel companies are particularly notorious for greenwashing.

The MTCS often ignores indigenous land ownership, while timber corporations regularly fail to meet the requirements of the scheme, for example around transparency, community consultation and impact assessments. So the MTCS doesn’t protect the local communities or forests.

In Sarawak, companies can also exploit a weaker governance system that doesn’t even require such transparency and consultation. In a worrying recent development, 200,000 hectares of territory traditionally occupied by Indigenous communities have been licenced to Samling, with over 50,000 hectares designated for conversion to palm oil plantations.

A group of villagers surround a digger holding signs saying "Stop the chop"
Malaysian villagers blockade Samling logging
Credit: Keruan

This has taken place without recognition of the communities’ ownership of the land and their dependence on it for their livelihoods. Samling has also failed to properly consult and share information with them.

Communities will wake up one day. Their trees are fallen, their farms are being bulldozed, because they were never consulted to begin with.

Celine Lim, head of SAVE Rivers and Kayan community leader

And what’s more, Samling has even taken legal action to try and silence local protests against logging. The United Nations has raised serious concerns about this, suggesting it may amount to a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), in which businesses such as Samling “exploit the power imbalances that exist between companies and human rights defenders […] to silence criticism and deter future opposition to a company’s projects through intimidation.”

How’s the UK driving deforestation abroad?

The UK is the third largest importer of MTCS-certified timber globally, making us a key market. UK timber regulations lay out rules that apply to timber entering the country. Timber importers must engage in “due diligence” to ensure imports meet legal obligations – including land tenure and genuine consultation with communities.

But this is very much a paper exercise and relies on certification. We know that on the ground legislation can be weak and power prevails. Despite blatant breaches, MTCS timber – some of which may be illegal under UK legislation – continues to enter the UK as sustainable.

How can we protect our world’s forests and their communities?

We face a climate and biodiversity crisis. Action to save the world’s forests and wild places, and the people that live in them, is urgent and essential. And timber isn’t the only harmful commodity – Sarawak is just one example of how big business puts profit above all else.

A group of activists stand in front of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office holding a CUT (Clean Up the Tropical Timber Trade) banner
Malaysian and UK activists demand a clean tropical timber supply chain
Credit: Kelly Hill/Friends of the Earth

When we buy furniture and other products, we rely on certification schemes to tell us whether they're sustainable. But if those schemes aren’t working to really protect environments and local communities, we need a law that will.

Our campaign, Planet over Profit, is calling on the UK government to enact a tough new law to ensure corporations are held to account. They need to respect the rights of Indigenous People and local communities – who are increasingly recognised as the best guardians of the planet’s biodiversity and forests – and be made liable for any damage they cause. Such a law would oblige UK companies to halt environmental destruction and human rights abuses in their supply chains.

Make companies accountable for the damage they cause

Friends of the Earth is a member of CUT (Clean Up the Tropical Timber Trade), alongside coalition members SAVE Rivers, Keruan, Bruno Manser Fonds and The Borneo Project.

The solidarity ritual at Tate Modern and the procession through London was a coalition action devised and produced by activist and artist Gaby Solly to launch the international CUT campaign.