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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
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