Summary of the China Forest Law Amendment (2019) and Potential Impacts on Wood Export to China

By: Yike Qin

The first Forest Law was originally established in China in 1984, and has been revised twice ever since. It has been over a decade since the last revision in 2009. Forests and the environment have seen huge changes since then, both in China and globally. On December 28, 2019, the Standing Committee of the China’s National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature voted to amend the Forest Law again, and the new Amendment will come into force on July 1, 2020.

This Amendment has nine chapters including general provisions, forest ownership, development planning, forest protection, tree planting and afforestation, forest management and administration, supervision and inspection, legal liability, and supplementary provision. Adhering to the Constitution, the Amendment requires any cultivation or use of forest resources to follow principles of sustainability and protection of nature. Shifting away from a focus on timber production, the Amendment concentrates on ecological civilization construction, seeking to more fully realize the role of forests in providing economic, social, ecological and cultural services. A few new materials have been added to reflect the principles, such as classified forest management system, science-based protection and restoration of forest ecosystems, forestry development planning, and forest fire prevention and pest control.

The revised Forest Law is a domestic-focused law. However, the sweeping changes to China’s forest sector will have overarching and long-lasting impacts, not just domestically, but also on the broader state of the world’s forests, such as direction of trade, availability of forest resources, and role of forests in providing key ecosystem services.

Domestic Impacts

Clearer Classified Forest Management System

The Amendment adopts a Classified Forest Management System, dividing forests into public welfare forests and commercial forests to achieve the balance between conservation and economic development. Public welfare forests are to be strictly protected and managed for ecological values while commercial forests are to be mainly used for economic purposes and be independently operated by forestry operators.

Increasing Efficiency of Timber Production

To increase the efficiency of timber production and distribution and strengthen the protections of the rights of forestry operators, the Amendment makes improvements on the existing Forest Harvesting Quota and Harvesting Licensing System by decentralizing the approval of harvest quotas, narrowing the scope of issuance of harvesting license, eliminating the Timber Transportation Licensing System and streamlining the issuance of Timber Harvesting Licenses.

Enhancing the Forest Tenure

On the basis of integrating the legal liability system of forestry, the Amendment strengthens the protection of forest tenure, establishes the National Forest Eco-Compensation System, and introduces stronger protections of the rights of private forest right holders. Any expropriation of forest land and trees must be carried out using evaluation and approval procedures in compliance with the law and include fair and reasonable compensation. In the event that demarcation of public welfare forests involves non-state-owned forest land, a written agreement should be signed with the forest rights holder and paired with reasonable compensation.

Global Impacts

Prohibiting Illegal Logging and Trade in Timber

The Amendment stipulates that “timber operating and processing enterprises should establish an account for entry and exit of raw materials and products. No unit or individual may purchase, process or transport timber that he/she clearly knows was piratically felled or indiscriminately felled in forest regions.” It provides a stronger entry point for China’s forestry authorities to supervise and inspect potentially illegal timber.

Over the past 20 years, China’s forestry authorities have cooperated with the trade and customs supervision authorities and research institutes to adopt a series of policy advocacy and technical support measures to combat illegal logging and trade in timber. As legislation, the Amendment provides a legal basis for China’s State Council and relevant ministries to formulate regulations, policies, legal framework, implementation plans and mandatory measures for regulating its market to help stop illicit import timber trade and bring about sustainable supply chains.

China remains the world’s largest importer, producer and consumer of wood. From 2009 to 2018, China’s total timber product market supply increased from 420 million mto 560 million m3, an increase of 32.6% over the past ten years. More than half of this wood is imported. Canada has an international reputation as a trusted source of legally and sustainably obtained forest products, which is now also recognized by the Chinese government senior officials. The third-party certification to assure the legality and sustainability of Canada’s forest products makes an advanced position for Canadian wood industry to import legal sourced timber to China under the new Amendment.