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21 March 2013

Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change

Protecting the world’s last remaining natural forests is crucial to global efforts to tackle climate change. There is widespread and growing scientific consensus that it will only be possible to avoid the tipping point when climate change becomes irreversible if we achieve both a reduction in overall industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, and establish an effective mechanism to protect forests from further degradation or deforestation. Living forests are the earth’s green lungs that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping our biosphere in balance. Logging and clearing forests releases that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, with deforestation currently estimated to account for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined.

Forests are also an important reservoir of biodiversity, providing habitat for more than two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial species. A cure for cancer, and countless other diseases, is likely to be found amongst the exotic species in our forests. But it is not just for environmental reasons that forest protection has captivated our imagination: forests keep more than 1.6 billion people alive. A quarter of the world’s population lives in or depends on forests for their food, medicines, shelter and fuel, with 90 per cent of the population living below the poverty line dependent entirely or in part on forests for their survival.

During the last few years, international climate change negotiations have focused on establishing a financial mechanism to reward countries for implementing policies that protect their forests. This mechanism, known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries), has focused principally on finding positive financial incentives to motivate industry and governments to shift their policies to favour more sustainable forestry practices. The REDD+ mechanism is supported by the United Nations, the World Bank and other initiatives.

Billions of dollars have been committed for REDD+, most of that originating in developed countries and spent in developing countries. This funding has focused on the preparation phase of REDD+, supporting developing countries to create national strategies, undertake policy reform and capacity building. The ultimate objective is to bring about an overall shift in government policy and industry practice towards sustainable forest management. Providing positive financial incentives – such as tax breaks, subsidies and the opportunity to generate carbon credits – will play an important role in encouraging this shift. However, while it is important to use positive incentives to reward good behaviour, we must also punish bad behaviour. Even the best forest management policies will be ineffective unless complemented by robust enforcement mechanisms.

Coupling financial incentives with stronger law enforcement is the best way to bring about long-term change in forestry practice. Unfortunately, not enough focus has been given to building law enforcement capacity. Tackling forestry crime, particularly illegal logging, should be one of the first steps in the battle to save the world’s forests. Every two seconds, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers, with the highest rates of deforestation taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia.

Illegal logging is a direct indicator of weak forest governance. Unless robust forest governance is implemented, even the best government policies will be repeatedly undermined by an industry that simply ignores those policies in favour of quick financial gains. As it stands, between 15 and 30 per cent of all timber traded globally is estimated to come from illegal sources. Focusing on key forested countries, the situation is more acute, with 50-90 per cent of their timber exports estimated to be illegal. Tackling illegal logging is, therefore, crucial to preventing overall forest loss. This has been seen in the Brazilian Amazon, Indonesia and Cameroon, where law enforcement efforts during the past decade have brought illegal logging rates down by 50-75 per cent and saved up to 17 million hectares of forest from degradation.

In addition to causing forest loss, illegal logging has a significant negative impact on government revenue, economic stability and public health.

Illegal logging, and the corruption supporting it, costs governments around USD 30 billion every year. Stronger law enforcement efforts can help recover this lost revenue. For every dollar invested to reduce illegal logging, between two and six dollars of additional revenue can be generated – up to a six-fold return on investment. 

Illegal logging operations are incredibly destructive, with operators moving into and out of a forest, extracting what they can quickly with little regard for the environment. Illegal land clearing pollutes water sources and causes landslides and other natural disasters, while illegal logging operations run by organized criminal networks deny forest-dependent communities access to their food, medicine and fuel.

A coordinated and international response is essential to combat the organized transnational criminal groups involved in forestry crime. Stronger law enforcement efforts in one country must be supported by the neighbouring countries to ensure the illegal logging operations do not simply relocate across the border.

Law enforcement officers in many timber producing countries face many challenges, including low wages, little training and poor equipment. Their efforts need the support of the importing countries, who can have a direct impact on demand for illegal timber by prohibiting the import and sale of illegally sourced wood. While such legislation exists in the United States, enforcement and prosecutions are rare. Similar legislation has been introduced Australia and the European Union, although there is no indication yet whether other major importing countries will follow suit.

Finally, it is important to recognize that reducing the supply of illegal timber on the global market helps reduce overall timber demand, a vital ingredient in efforts to protect forests. Illegal logging floods the market with cheap wood, suppressing global timber prices between seven and 16 per cent. Tackling illegal logging will increase overall timber prices to reflect its true market value, consequently reducing demand and making efforts to improve the efficiency of timber processing, recycling and re-use more economically viable. It will also benefit the law-abiding members of the timber industry by allowing them to obtain appropriate market prices for their timber. Such companies are currently being denied about USD 30 billion per year in lost profits.

It is important that incentives, regulations, punishments and rewards must all be simultaneously implemented in order to promote forest protection and sustainable forest management. International negotiations, which have so far focused only on providing incentives, should also turn their consideration to strategies to strengthen forest governance, including directly addressing illegal logging and building the capacity of law enforcement authorities in forested countries. This is an issue that needs to be brought into the debate and made a central component of the actions taken by developing countries to address deforestation and forest degradation.

Davyth Stewart
Criminal Intelligence Officer
Team Leader, Project LEAF
INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme