A new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) exposes the largest United States (U.S.) home improvement retailer, Home Depot, and its supply chain’s nexus to major forest crimes and grand corruption in Equatorial Guinea. The Dictator’s Door shows that, according to EIA’s findings, over 1.2 million doors sold since 2018 are at high risk for containing illegally sourced okoume wood from Equatorial Guinea, likely in violation of the U.S. Lacey Act. The Lacey Act prohibits the importation into the U.S. of illegally obtained wildlife and plants. The supply chain for these doors, on the shelf at over 750 Home Depot stores across 29 states as of April 2023, leads to and benefits the oppressive and corrupt regime of President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979 and whose government has one of the worst corruption and human rights records in the world.
Okoume (Aucoumea klaineana) trees – sought after for the rich color, texture, and durability of its wood – grow exclusively in the forests of the Congo basin, in particular Equatorial Guinea. The Dictator’s Door builds upon EIA’s landmark Toxic Trade report and uncovers illegal logging in Equatorial Guinea’s forests and the indirect import of okoume timber into the U.S. via Asian processing hubs. From Equatorial Guinea, okoume logs are exported to China and processed into thin veneers, which are in turn processed into okoume-faced door skins at hubs in China, Thailand, and Malaysia. Most of these door skins are then imported by Jeld-Wen, one of the largest door and window manufacturers in the world. Jeld-Wen pastes the okoume-faced door skins onto hollow cardboard or pine frames to create door slabs, which are sold to retailers such as Home Depot, and in turn to millions of customers in the U.S.
EIA’s investigation sheds light on corruption and illegalities throughout this supply chain. In Equatorial Guinea, the investigation found logging companies were harvesting and exporting okoume logs without regard for forestry regulations, forest communities’ rights, or tax obligations. Systemic illegalities are made possible by corruption throughout Equatorial Guinea’s forestry sector and government, reaching as high as Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang, son of the president. EIA evidence suggests that Vice President Obiang collects average annual bribes worth more than U.S. $24 million for the export of any timber from Equatorial Guinea.
“It is utterly disturbing to learn about the apparent links between Home Depot, a major U.S. corporation, and the enabling of authoritarian kleptocracy that is exacerbating poverty and climate risks in my home country,” said Tutu Alicante, a human rights activist from Equatorial Guinea. “Funds desperately needed to improve healthcare, education, access to water and sanitation for thousands of people, instead appear to be used to line the pockets of a criminally convicted Vice-President. Home Depot cannot claim it lacks the resources to ascertain the origin of its products and who is negatively impacted by its product.”
The investigation also found that Jeld-Wen, using the information provided by its Malaysian supplier, has declared the import of door skins containing okoume as having been harvested in the Republic of Congo to U.S. authorities, when neither them or their supplier appear to have the evidence or means to trace back where the timber was harvested. Jeld-Wen’s failure to verify the origin and legality of the wood it imports also potentially represents a failure to exercise due care as established in the landmark United States v. Lumber Liquidators Holding, Inc.
In addition to engaging in apparent violations of the Lacey Act, Home Depot appears to be in non-compliance with its own outdated wood purchasing policy, which states that Home Depot will only purchase FSC-certified wood from the Congo basin. EIA could not find any regular export of FSC-certified okoume logs from the Congo basin to China.
“Our investigation has one clear conclusion: as of today Home Depot’s global wood supply chains are opaque to the point that Home Depot itself doesn’t seem to understand them. This brings very concrete and immediate risks for the company and their investors. Violating the company’s own policy is one thing, potentially violating U.S. laws is another,” said Raphael Edou, Africa Program Manager at EIA US.
EIA’s recommendations include Home Depot removing immediately all okoume-faced doors from its shelves, reviewing its wood purchasing policy in order to include unbroken traceability to the point of harvest, and providing customers with information about the origin of the timber they sell. Furthermore, EIA recommends Jeld-Wen suspend the import and manufacture of okoume-faced door skins until a comprehensive Lacey Act compliance plan is implemented. The report also calls on the Department of Justice to investigate Jeld-Wen’s imports and potential violations of the Lacey Act.