PEFC Dismisses Romanian Government Findings, Clears Austrian Company Despite Documented Illegalities

The certification body PEFC has closed its complaint against Holzindustrie Schweighofer (Schweighofer), despite an investigation by the Romanian Ministry of the Environment, Water and Forests that concluded the company has been involved in various illegal activities. The Romanian government report was handed over to the national prosecutor in July 2015.

Alexander von Bismarck, Executive Director at EIA, said, “We are very concerned that PEFC has actively dismissed the public findings of the Romanian Ministry of the Environment, Water and Forests, which found illegal wood, faked documents and other illegalities at Schweighofer Romania. The government’s findings confirmed EIA’s own investigations which had revealed that Schweighofer not only accepted, but actively encouraged illegal harvesting.”

PEFC had launched a complaint and requested an additional audit by certifier Holzforschung Austria after the Romanian Ministry reported its findings. It was the second special audit by this certifier within just a few months; another audit – with the same results – had been carried out after EIA released an undercover video in April 2015, showing top Schweighofer managers accepting offers of illegal wood.

At the same time Holzforschung Austria found no violations, government investigators found that Schweighofer’s Sebeș mill alone had processed over 160,000 m3 of illegal timber.

PEFC’s due diligence system is, according to its own documentation, “based on information provided by the supplier.” The risk of illegality may be deemed “negligible” if the supplier provides “documents or other reliable information indicating compliance,” but these documents are not further specified. PEFC’s standard further states that illegal or reasonably suspected illegal wood “shall not be placed on the market unless* … the timber supplied [is] classified as presenting “negligible risk."

Von Bismarck added, “According to PEFC, placing illegal timber on the market is permissible as long as the supplier provides some sort of paperwork. The falsified paperwork that the Romanian Ministry found at Schweighofer’s mill demonstrates the weakness of PEFC’s paper-based system.”

On-site checks on the supplier side can be required if the timber is classified as coming from a high risk area, but there is no way of knowing if these have been conducted by the certifier, since information about the audits is confidential. An inquiry by EIA to obtain respective certification reports from Holzforschung Austria was declined in August, shortly before PEFC published its complaint. 

PEFC also rejected a complaint about potential conflict of interest of the certifier because of close personal ties with Schweighofer, submitted by a Romanian NGO. Georg Erlacher, a high level manager at Schweighofer, started his career with the company in the 1990s. As the Austrian economic daily Wirtschaftsblatt reported in June of this year, Erlacher sat on the board of certifier Holzforschung Austria at the time Schweighofer received its PEFC certificate in 2014.

EIA's investigation into Schweighofer’s purchases of illegal timber is ongoing and EIA will release further information as soon as the investigation has concluded. EIA’s video footage remains clear and is publically available. For more than a decade, many Romanian NGOs and journalists have documented Schweighofer’s purchases of illegal timber. Earlier this year, a Romanian activist was beaten and pepper sprayed by Schweighofer’s guards as he filmed a shipment of illegal timber enter the company’s gates.

“We hope that PEFC will explain why it is uninterested in improving and at least continuing its investigation if it wishes to keep illegal wood from entering the supply chains it certifies,” said von Bismarck.

*Emphasis has been added.