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Loopholes in regulations allow illegal logging to thrive worldwide new IUFRO study finds

Illegally harvested and traded timber continues to strongly impact the environment, societies and economies. Existing regulations are not enough to stem the global illegal trade in timber according to a new report by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO).


Illegally harvested and traded timber continues to strongly impact the environment, societies and economies, including endangering biological diversity and climate change mitigation. Existing regulations are not enough to stem the global illegal trade in timber, which is shifting to countries with looser laws and to domestic, rather than international markets. All according to a new report launched today at the Conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancún, Mexico by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO), a global forest research organisation.

The report “Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade – Dimensions, Drivers, Impacts and Responses” also found evidence of increased involvement of organised criminal networks in illegal logging. More than 40 renowned scientists from around the world, coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), contributed to the study making it one of the most comprehensive scientific analysis of illegal logging to date.

– Forestry crime including corporate crimes and illegal logging account for up to US$152 billion every year, more than all official development aid combined. We urgently have to come up with new strategies to eliminate illegal timber production and related trade. This could also significantly improve the lives of poor and disadvantaged people and protect them from criminal cartels. When the scientific evidence is clear, as it is in this report, it enables policy makers to act, said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, one of the partner organisations supporting the assessment.

No “one-size-fits-all” solution

– Policies must embrace the major dimensions of the problem, namely illegal forest conversion, informal logging and all other illegal forest activities including forest crime. There is legislation in place in the USA and the EU, for example, to stop illegally harvested timber entering their markets. Theses policy responses might have increasingly positive impacts in the future, but they are by far not enough as these programmes do not address the different dimensions associated with illegal logging, said Daniela Kleinschmit, University of Freiburg and the Chair of the assessment on “Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade”.

The scientists have identified the following major trends related to illegal logging and related timber trade:

  • Trade shifts to less regulated markets: According to the report, the effects of bilateral trade agreements are often muted as the majority of illegal timber is traded domestically and therefore not covered by the agreements. Due to required timber legality verification between certain countries as well as general economic developments, timber trade has shifted to markets such as China and India, where less stringent regulation is in place. China and India are today the main importing countries of both legal and illegal tropical timber – with Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia remaining the dominant timber producers. But illegal logging appears as well in other forest regions. Russia, for example, is the main source of illegal timber from boreal and temperate forests.
  • Informal logging prevails as a way to make a living: About 86 percent of the world’s forests are publicly owned, but the land tenure situation is often unclear and conflicting. At the same time, one billion people worldwide depend on forests and trees for balanced diets and sustainable incomes. There is evidence that the production of illegal timber by informal small-scale producers is increasing. This is often rooted in poor knowledge of law, unclear legislation and tenure rights or disproportionate costs of compliance.
  • Forest conversion to agricultural land is still a major problem: It is estimated that almost one-third of tropical timber traded globally is illegal conversion timber. The study points out that most of the forest conversion has occurred in the Amazon and Southeast Asia, however forest conversion in the Amazon has been curtailed to some extent in recent years. A large part of illegal forest conversion is for commercial agricultural production, particularly export-orientated agricultural goods like palm oil, soybeans, and beef.
  • Organised criminal networks increasingly target forests: According to the study, in some parts of the world organised forest crime may be extremely violent and has also been associated with the financing of wars and conflicts. Concurrently recent recognition of illegal logging as a form of transnational organised crime now provides more tools to tackle the problem, and the report documents new initiatives. For example, local residents in the Brazilian Amazon have started to make use of waterproof GPS cameras to collect evidence of illegal logging, illegal timber transports, and also land grabbing.

Illegal logging not just a forest-related issue

– In addition to bilateral efforts, stronger international cooperation is needed globally to successfully fight illegal logging and related timber trade and prevent it from shifting to less regulated markets. We must also recognise that illegal logging is not merely a forest-related problem to be resolved by the ministries dealing with the forest and environment sectors alone. Illegal conversion of forests to agricultural land is an example that clearly shows the need for a broader cooperation, in this case between forestry and agriculture, said Alexander Buck, IUFRO Executive Director.

The scientists indicate that more research and especially more data on the extent of the various illegal activities is needed to better understand the different dimensions of illegal logging and related trade. The problem has gained new political momentum due to the fact that illegal logging has recently been acknowledged as a serious crime. The scientists call for policy measures that fully address all dimensions of illegal logging in order to provide for a sustained future of forests.

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