On the Trail of Timber Trafficking – Julian Newman, Environmental Investigation Agency

Illegal logging is one of the most damaging and lucrative forms of environmental crime. In financial terms, the World Bank estimates that illegal logging costs developing countries $15 billion a year in lost revenue and taxes. But the cost of illegal logging goes far beyond financial loss; it exacerbates climate change, impacts ecological security through events such as floods and forest fires, threatens biodiversity and affects the traditional livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.

Illegal logging takes place when national laws regulating the harvesting, processing, transporting and trading of timber are broken. Contrary to popular misconception, illegal logging is not simply a group of locals chopping down trees in remote forests; rather, it is a form of transnational organised crime carried out by syndicates spanning continents.

The Environmental Investigation Agency, an international NGO based in London, has gained unique insights into the mechanics of forest crimes through a series of undercover investigations dating back to the late 1990s. Our work began in Tanjung Puting National Park, in Indonesia, an internationally renowned haven for endangered orangutans. What we found was a chaotic situation with huge amounts of valuable logs flowing out of the park. Our investigations led to the main culprit; a local timber baron making tens of million of dollars a year from exporting timber stolen from the park with the connivance of corrupt officials. At the time, it was estimated that 80 per cent of all trees felled in Indonesia involved illegality.

But, of course, this was just the start of the trail. EIA was determined to track the stolen wood from Indonesia onto the international market. This work took our team of investigators across Indonesia and into the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Singapore, where the wood was being shipped, and also to the final markets of Europe and the US. This often dangerous endeavour culminated in EIA’s 2005 exposure of massive log smuggling from the Papuan provinces in eastern Indonesia to China. We uncovered a cross-border criminal syndicate operating in Papua, the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China behind the smuggling of around 15 fully-laden cargo ships a month carrying illegal logs to help feed China’s burgeoning wood-processing industry.

This revelation finally persuaded the Indonesian Government to clamp down on illegal logging and an operation involving over 1,000 enforcement personnel was launched. Within three months, the price of Indonesian wood on the Chinese market doubled. Yet despite progress in Indonesia, where the world’s third largest expanse of tropical forest is found, illegal logging remains a problem. Our most recent investigation shows how the wooden furniture and flooring industry in Vietnam uses illegal hardwood logs smuggled across the border from neighbouring Laos.

Global efforts to curb the trade in stolen timber have been stymied by a lack of international regulations, meaning that illegal logs smuggled out of a country such as Indonesia could not be seized upon arrival in countries such as China. This is now changing with the introduction of new laws in the US and European Union making it an offence to import wood products made from illegally logged timber. Although overdue, the emergence of these regulations is a recognition of the pivotal role played by consumer-demand for cheap tropical timber in driving illegal logging.

Ultimately, it is only through strong measures to exclude stolen timber from the international supply chain that the world’s remaining precious rainforests can be protected from the scourge of illegal logging.

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