Organised crime behind up to 90 percent of tropical deforestation - report

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 27 September 2012 13:00 GMT

As the problem worsens, tactics include hacking government websites to obtain permits and presenting illegal timber as cut legally to clear palm oil and soy plantations

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Organised crime trade worth billions of dollars is responsible for 50 to 90 percent of illegal logging in parts of the Amazon basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, with implications for deforestation, climate change and the well-being of indigenous people, said a report released Thursday.

“Green Carbon: Black Trade,” by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL, said illegal logging is now worth $30 to $100 billion annually and accounts for 15 to 30 percent of the overall timber trade.

Most wood products with illegal origin are destined for China, while Japan, the EU and the United States are also primary importers.

“Illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organised,” said the heads of UNEP and INTERPOL in the report’s preface.

Conflict, corruption, decentralised government structures and weak environmental laws fuel the practice, with criminal groups combining old-fashioned tactics such as bribes with high-tech methods including hacking government websites to obtain permits, said the report.

“Murder, violence, threats and atrocities against indigenous forest-living peoples,” also are problems associated with the trade, the report said.

Criminals are using an increasingly sophisticated range of tactics, the report said, from laundering illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations and saw mills, to shifting activities between regions and countries to avoid local and international policing efforts.

An internationally coordinated law enforcement scheme and training effort – estimated to cost around $20 to $30 million annually – is essential to substantially reduce the crimes, the report said.

“As long as the profits in illegal logging remain high and the risks of getting caught are very low, there is little incentive to abandon illegal practices,” it warned.


Protecting forest is important for a range of reasons, from maintaining biodiversity and natural systems such as water filtration and consistent rainfall to protecting their ability to store carbon dioxide, one of the primary greenhouses gases emitted by burning fossil fuels and blamed for climate change.

Deforestation, largely of tropical forests in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is responsible for around 17 percent of all man-made emissions - larger than those emitted by ships, aviation and land transport combined, said UNEP.

Illegal deforestation also undermines attempts to mitigate climate change through programmes such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) which provides payments to forest countries and communities for conserving forests.

“Reducing deforestation, and especially illegal logging, is... the fastest, most effective and least controversial means to reduce global emissions of climate gases,” said the report.

A much-heralded apparent decline in illegal logging in the 2000s was only temporary, the report said, marking a shift from obvious activity to more advanced laundering operations. Those have included things such as criminals benefitting from tax fraud and misuse of government subsidies, the report said.

It described more than 30 ways of procuring and laundering illegal timber, including mixing illegally logged logs with legal ones and selling them as part of legal land clearing operations for palm oil or soy plantations.

“Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds,” the report said.


The illegal business is highly profitable, with revenues up to 5-10 times higher than legal timber cutting for all parties involved, including corrupt police and judicial figures. In most cases, governments, law enforcement officers and ordinary citizens are the losers.

In Indonesia, the amount of logs allegedly produced through plantations increased from 3.7 million cubic metres in 2000 to over 22 million in 2008, the report said. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that less than half of the plantations actually existed.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 200 rangers in the Virunga National Park have been killed in the past 10 years defending the park boundaries against militias operating a charcoal trade estimated to be worth over $28 million annually.

“Demand for timber or wood products is rising in many countries, including China, which is expected to almost double its wood consumption by 2020,” the report said. World demand for timber is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2020, it said.

INTERPOL and UNEP are hoping a pilot project called LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests) could be the answer.

The programme will provide assistance to INTERPOL member countries on a range of forest-related issues, including training in intelligence gathering and help building a structure and platform suitable to enforce national laws governing forestry and to meet international commitments such as REDD.

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