Organized Crime Threatens Tropical Forests

The Nakai plateau in Laos following illegal logging. (From International Rivers/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


When you think of organized crime, you probably picture Tony Soprano or Don Corleone and their nefarious waste management and drug trade activities. In the tropics, criminal organizations are resorting to bribery, forgery, and laundering—all to get their hands on timber. The crime rings are illegally harvesting wood in startling quantities, a new report finds.


The report, put out by the United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol, estimates that 15 to 30 percent of wood on the world market is harvested illegally. The proportion could be as high as 90 percent in sensitive tropical regions such as the Amazon, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia.


In the mid-2000s, illegal harvesting appeared to be falling in some regions following government crackdowns. But the report concludes that the decline may have been an illusion.


“In the last five years, illegal logging has moved from direct illegal logging to more advanced methods of concealment and timber laundering,” the report says.


How are these tree thugs able to cut and transport tons of illegal material every year without getting caught? One common method is obtaining illegitimate permits, whether through forgery, bribery or even hacking government databases. Other criminal cutters work under the cover of legal logging or farming ventures, mixing illicitly harvested wood with legal logs, understating harvest quantities, or claiming illegal wood is plantation-grown.


"What we're shocked about is the sheer scale of timber that goes unaccounted for," the report’s editor Christian Nellemann told the New Scientist.


Illegal logging takes a severe toll on native wildlife. The Bolivian rainforest, home to 1,400 bird species, every year loses more than 1,400 square miles, an area larger than Yosemite National Park, to a mixture of legal and illegal logging. In Peru, illegal logging is rampant in an area vital to the rare long-whiskered owlet, among many other sensitive species.


Local residents, activists, and even government-hired rangers often suffer violence when they try to protect the forest. In Cambodia last month, a journalist reporting on illegal logging was found dead under suspicious circumstances and last spring activist Chut Wutty was shot while documenting illegal logging. Twenty government rangers in the Philippines have been killed since 2010 trying to do their jobs.


One of the main challenges is that even if a government cracks down on illegal logging in one region, the organized criminal groups can move to an area with less enforcement. Rather than relying only on piecemeal enforcement efforts and positive incentives for legal logging, the report recommends, law enforcement agencies need to collaborate internationally on getting tough on environmental crime.

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