Science & Environment

Illegal logging makes billions for gangs, report says

Child sits on tree in flood
Image caption Illegal logging has been blamed for a number of flooding incidents, notably in the Philippines

Illegal logging generates $10-15bn (£7.5-11bn) around the world, according to new analysis from the World Bank.

Its report, Justice for Forests, says that most illegal logging operations are run by organised crime, and much of the profit goes to corrupt officials.

Countries affected include Indonesia, Madagascar and several in West Africa.

The bank says that pursuing loggers through the criminal justice system has made a major impact in some nations, and urges others to do the same.

It also recommends that aid donors should fund programmes that strengthen the capacity of law enforcement and legal authorities to tackle the illegal timber trade.

"We need to fight organised crime in illegal logging the way we go after gangsters selling drugs or racketeering," said Jean Pesme, manager of the World Bank Financial Market Integrity team.

The analysts calculate that an area of forest the size of a soccer pitch is illegally logged every second.

Chainsaws of supply

The report picks out a number of ways in which illegal timber is managed in a similar way to other prohibited commodities such as drugs.

Image caption Brazil's deforestation rate has risen and fallen in recent years, as enforcement has changed

But currently, it says, "most forest crimes go undetected, unreported, or are ignored.

"All too often, investigations - in the rare event that they do take place - are amateurish and inconclusive, and the few cases taken to court tend to be of trivial significance, prosecuting people whose involvement in crime is due to poverty and exploitation."

This last comment highlights the very differing scales of illegal logging, which encompasses everything from mechanised teams to individual villagers taking wood for fuel.

However, it says, a number of countries including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are getting tougher, and starting to bring prosecutions higher up the criminal food chain.

Western countries, consumers and businesses can also play a significant role in cleaning up forestry, the report says.

Three years ago the US amended the Lacey Act, and now companies operating in the US are obliged to prove that their wood comes from legal sources.

A number of businesses are being investigated under the amendment, notably the iconic Gibson guitar company.

The EU has introduced similar legislation, and a growing number of companies will only buy wood that is demonstrably legal and sustainably harvested.

In 2010, a report from the London-based Chatham House think-tank concluded that these and other measures had reduced illegal logging by about a quarter over the preceding eight years.

It urged Japan, as a major timber consumer, to introduce its own legislation; and as Chinese consumption grows, campaigners are increasingly turning their attention there.

Two years ago the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) discovered that beds made of illegally obtained Madagascan wood were selling for up to $1m in Beijing.

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