Upto 30% of global timber trade is illegal

penan stand against the loggers

With nothing more than blowpipes the Penan make a stand against the loggers.

A new report produced jointly by the United Nations and Interpol which was published yesterday will make depressing reading for anyone involved over the last 30 years in environmental campaigning. The report called Green Carbon – Black Trade states that anything between 15% and 30% of global timber trading involves illegally source logs.

To put some financial value to that it means that organised criminals are making between 30 and 100 billion US dollars a year from destroying protected forests.

My own first direct action and campaigning over 30 years ago was involved with protecting tropical forest and illegal logging. As a volunteer with groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth I’d be involved in action against DIY stores to get them to think about where they sources their timber from.

Back then the enemy was ignorance and naivety. Illegal loggers were after a fast buck and retailers didn’t really understand the consequences of buying timber without checking on the source of that timber. Today though the enemy are experienced criminals that use sophisticated methods to launder their illegal timber into the global marketplace.

The report shows examples of 30 different ways that modern-day criminals use to get their timber into the global market place. These range from simply paying bribes to officials to hacking government web sites in order to gain transport and export permits.

The report highlights that the drop in illegal logging that occurred during the previous decade was just a short-term blip on the long-term trend of increasing illegal logging. The report also highlights that while some of that apparent decline in illegal logging was a result of increased law enforcement it was also caused by a hiding of illegal logging activities by increasingly sophisticated laundering methods.

For instance the report refers to a tripling of timber ‘originating’ from plantations following on from a crackdown in law enforcement on illegal logging operations. In Indonesia for instance each year more many times more timber are produced from plantations than from the total cumulative amount of plantantions that is under cultivation.

This US$100 billion a year trade is well organised. It’s not just bribes that are paid to get the timber out of the forests. There are instances of village leaders being paid royalties on timber removed from their area.Tthe payments help to stop objections to the logging. And those who do object risk feeling the wrath of the criminals. Threats, violence and murder are not uncommon if you stand in the way of the chainsaws.

But it’s not just the local residents of the forest who pay the cost of the illegal logging. The source of much of this timber comes from developing nations and the illegal logging deprives the government and people of much need tax dollars to invest in hospitals, schools and infrastructure.

In addition much of the logging takes place in countries that are seeking to take advantage of grant payments under the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). If the forests are being illegally logged then those grant payments will not be made and that can cost developing countries billions of dollars in much-needed finance.

One of the countries that the report takes a closer look at is Indonesia. In Kalimantan the going rate of bribery to for illegal logging is between 10% and 40% of the value of the timber to be extracted. That’s much cheaper than applying for an official permit but it denies the government of much-needed tax revenue or income from REDD payments.

While the growing middle-income young professionals of Jakarta and Bogor may think that illegal logging is a problem of the rural poor to deal with it impacts very much on every person in the country. Millions of dollars each year is lost in tax revenue that could build new roads, improve public transport or improve schools and medical centres.

The illegal logging in Indonesia is a problem that everyone in the country should be concerned about. Even if the loss of wildlife and biodiversity is not high on their list of priorities then having a strong economy and strong government investment in public services should be a good reason to put pressure on the government to tackle illegal logging in the provinces.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono aims to take Indonesia’s economy to be the second biggest in Asia in the next couple of year – surpassing that of India and becoming second only to China. That growth will require public spending and tax losses from criminals who illegally log the natural resources of the country will hinder the improvements of living standards across the country and the economy itself.

The new report makes sobering reading for those who thought the world was beginning to get to grips with illegal logging and protection of rainforests. As the report points out if the higher estimates of the illegal trade in timber is more accurate than the lower estimate then the value of illegal logging is greater than the global fisheries market.

Even at the lower end of the estimates of $30 billion a year the value of illegal logging is more than twice the value of the $13 billion a year trade in illegal drugs but with a fraction of the risk of being caught and much lower sentences.

Interpol has estimated that to begin to get to grips with the criminals behind the trade there would need to be a global boost to forestry law enforcement of about $30 million a year. This may seem a substantial amount of money but is a miniscule amount when compared to the billions being made available through the REDD scheme. Just a small amount of those billions transferred to an international law enforcement fund would protect a substantial amount of forest from the timber criminals.

External sites:

UN and Interpol report:  Green Carbon – Black Trade (pdf)