The dark side of the forest

Wood truck. Photo by CIFOR.
Wood truck. Photo by CIFOR.

Illegal logging is causing massive economic damage to developing countries, and organized crime networks are increasingly involved in the lucrative plunder of the planet’s forests
By Tim Christophersen

When you shop at your local mall for furniture, or paper, have you ever considered whether these wood products come from legal sources? A recent report by UN Environment and Interpol estimates that between 10 and 30 per cent of all roundwood traded globally is illegal. This means that illegal logging and related trade could be worth between US$ 50 and 152 billion per year. This money is lost to poor countries, which urgently need tax revenues for their development.

Based on these alarming figures, the forest team at UN Environment took a closer look at the dimensions and impacts of, and responses to, illegal logging. In collaboration with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, we assembled the best global experts in this field and developed a Rapid Response Assessment on Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade. The report was launched on 3 December during the Summit on Biological Diversity in Cancun/Mexico, and it shines light on the dark side of forestry.

Firstly, the nature of illegal logging varies from one country to another and within a country depending on whether it is subsistence, small-scale or large-scale. For the fight against illegal logging to be effective, legislation and law enforcement should reflect the nature and scale of the illegal operations and pay special attention to the needs of local populations. These vulnerable communities usually live inside or near these forests and see large amounts of wood leave their areas with minimal or no benefits to them. For example, policies and regulations governing logging using sawpits or chainsaws for local or domestic markets cannot be the same as those related to large-scale commercial operations destined for the global market.

Secondly, it is important to develop sustainable livelihood alternatives for those who rely on illegal logging or illegal charcoal production for their survival. This requires international aid flows and other investments to reach those most in need of them: the rural poor in developing countries.

A third key finding is that organized crime networks are increasingly involved in illegal logging. The fight to take out organized criminal networks is a major challenge and will need concerted efforts, nationally and internationally, including between Interpol and the UN system. Recent successes in criminal investigations carried out by Interpol are encouraging, and should be systematically scaled up. This becomes all the more important because illegal logging supports corruption and conflicts in some parts of the world, and raises serious security issues. Despite an export ban, troops of the African Union Mission to Somalia continue to play a role in the illicit export of charcoal from Somalia, in collusion with terrorist networks and corrupt local officials. Illegal logging and related trade now account for the largest share in the global rise in environmental crime, which now amounts to an estimated US$259 billion per year, outstripping the illegal trade in small arms.

The UN system is starting to respond to this challenge. The recent recognition by the UN General Assembly of environmental crime as part of organized crime is an important step in the right direction. The General Assembly calls upon all Member States to ”make illicit trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora involving organized criminal groups a serious crime”.

Good governance, transparency and international collaboration on law enforcement can be effective approaches to curb illegal logging. There is some good news on this front. The Supreme Court of Indonesia, in a groundbreaking ruling, just sentenced the Indonesian company PT Merbau Pelalawan Lestari to pay a record fine of US$ 1.2 billion for illegal logging. This amount might seem staggering, but it is fully justified if we consider the true value of forests, and the true costs of deforestation. With all their ecosystem services, tropical forests provide more than US$ 16,000 per hectare per year to society. And with ever-improving tools such as Global Forest Watch, we can now detect deforestation in near-real time, and anticipate where it will take place. So, illegal loggers beware: you are being watched, and the law might catch up with you sooner than you think.

tim_chrisTim Christophersen coordinates the activities of UN Environment (UNEP) on forests and climate change, including UNEP’s role within the UN-REDD Programme. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya and can be reached under