Stopping the axe

Illegal logging is on the rise. Up to 90 % of tropical deforestation is the consequence of criminal activities, according to a recent study published by UNEP and INTERPOL.

By Sheila Mysorekar

Wood travels a long way. A log cut in an Indonesian rain forest may become a dinner table in Germany. The sad truth, however, is that many trees that are felled for timber production should ac­tually be protected because they grow in a forest reserve or belong to a rare species. In this business, however, laws are not stringently enforced, so illegal logging is on the rise. Today, some 15 % to 30 % of the wood traded worldwide has been produced illegally, according to a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) in late September. In the key tropical countries, the share is stated to rise to a staggering 50 % to 90 %.

The two international agencies report “Green carbon, black trade” assesses various kinds of crime, ranging from different ways of illegal logging, to transport and smuggling, through to bribery and money laundering. According to the editorial team, global illegal logging is worth $ 30 billion to $ 100 billion. Since it is a low-risk, high-profit business, the authors point out, it attracts investors from many places, including Europe and North America.

Various certification schemes are supposed to ensure that timber is produced according to sustainable forestry methods. The idea is that consumers can tell legal and eco-friendly goods from those that were made by use of destructive means.

According to the UNEP/INTERPOL study, however, the certification systems are not reliable. The authors describe more than 30 ways of bypassing them. For instance, logging companies forge permits, or bribe officials to get one. Up to $ 50 000 are said to be paid for the permission to cut down a single valuable tree. Another trick described in the report is to simply exceed the concession quota, and cut down more trees than allowed, the authors write. Criminal gangs are becoming more tech-savvy, moreover, and hack government websites to obtain permits. The study also discusses the challenge of fraudulent eco-certification.

Illegal logging appeared to be in decline a few years ago, the UNEP/INTERPOL document argues, but that is not the long-term trend as criminal operations are becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect. Even legal plantations, the authors write, sometimes only serve as a cover for illegal logging, as their produce is mixed with illegally felled trees. Such practices, it is said, depend on forest officials and police turning a blind eye, which is why bribes matter very much.

Indigenous people at risk

Indigenous people in various parts of the world are particularly affected by illegal logging. Their traditional lifestyles depend on dense, ecologically intact forests. According to UNEP and INTERPOL, however, not only their livelihoods suffer because forests are cut down. In some countries, loggers are known to kill indigenous people. The study lists examples from Peru und Brazil.

UNEP and INTERPOL insist that the trend of rising crime must not be ac­cepted. They are in favour of adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to law enforcement. The entire law enforcement chain from regulating offices to tax and customs bodies through to the police and the law courts must be involved. The report praises an approach taken by UNEP and INTERPOL: their joint project LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests) is designed to help member countries boost capacities in this field in the next two years.

Sheila Mysorekar

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