UN Report: Tropical Deforestation is a Booming Business for Organized Crime

By Veronique Greenwood | October 2, 2012 2:43 pm

spacing is important
This chart from the report illustrates the improbable spurt of new timber coming out of Indonesian, likely harvested rain forest trees funneled through legal plantations.

Tropical rain forests—enormous carbon sinks, workers of regional weather, home to millions of species, sources of new drugs—have a lot more to offer alive than dead; lumber isn’t much good at curing cancer or keeping global temperatures down. Yet deforestation continues, and even getting legislation that makes the logging of rain forest illegal is probably unlikely to deter the worst offenders. Though some estimates claim rates of deforestation have dropped, according to a new United Nations Environmental Program and INTERPOL report [pdf], that decrease is simply the result of better cover-up on the part of the criminal cartels that control the $30-100 billion a year business of illegal logging. Business in so-called “black” wood, it turns out, is flourishing.

The report describes in detail how illegal logging operations work and provides analyses of the social and government factors that facilitate them. One of the easiest ways to get illegal wood out of a country is by slipping it in with wood from an above-board plantation, for instance. This means that the amount of wood coming out of legal plantations can grossly exceed what you might expect, as demonstrated in the figure above. The end result of all these stratagems is that 50-90% of the wood coming out of some tropical countries is illicit. Between 15 and 30% of the international timber market, in fact, is now in illegally cut wood.

Often, people at every level of the process, from local inhabitants to foresters to planation owners to foreign investors and government officials low and high, are complicit. The report points out that systems that aim to pay communities to keep their forests intact by compensating them for the carbon sequestration, water filtering, and other services the woods provide, will fail if they cannot pay more than the illegal loggers can.

INTERPOL recently kicked off Project LEAF, Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests, intended to help combat such efforts in part by focusing on finding cartel leaders rather than individual loggers. Wish them the best of luck—against this adversary, they’ll need it.

  • Pete1215

    Our attack submarines have not had much to do lately. This seems a good time for some target practicing.

  • floodmouse

    Go, Pete! (How about ground troops?)

  • John Lerch

    The sad fact is that when things are outlawed only outlaws will have things. That is not to say that we should give up trying to regulate unethical behavior.

  • katcha shiver

    Boils down to our greed for unhealthy consumption.

  • Brian Too

    This sounds scarily similar to the dynamics of illegal fishing.

  • Bob Snyder

    How is the illegal logging rate decreasing relative to the ratio of log supply to cumulative timber plantation area and where (what) are the last 2 data points for the illegal logging rate? It appears as if the legal supply of timber is increasing more than the illegal supply? My problem with the graph is that the illegal logging rate doesn’t tell us if the actual supply of illegal timber is increasing or decreasing, we have to infer that from the other data. Why not just provide a graph of illegal supply of timber per year relative to overall production and include the rate as the third data plot? That seems as if it would have made more sense to me..

  • Matt

    Bob – Give me the number to the cartel leader and I’ll give him/her a call to get their FY 2011 sale #’s.

    Typically that kind of information can only be estimated by – you guessed it, inferrences based on observed 2nd and 3rd order of effects. I think that is what they’re trying to do here.

  • Blathering Blathiscope

    It seems to me this would be a perfect job for drones. Wait until the workers are quit for the day then target the heavy equipment.

    Keep targeting the heavy equipment until they stop.
    Next, they could target illegal fisheries.


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