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Major Strides Seen in Halting Illegal Logging

Hannah Rubenstein

NEW YORK, Jul 15 2010 (IPS) - A comprehensive report, released Thursday by Chatham House, finds that production of illegal timber worldwide has declined by 22 percent since 2002, a trend that is benefiting both communities dependent on tropical forests and the global climate.

Illegal chainsaw milling in Ghana. Credit: Courtesy of Tropenbos International – EU Chainsaw Milling Project

Illegal chainsaw milling in Ghana. Credit: Courtesy of Tropenbos International – EU Chainsaw Milling Project

Sam Lawson, lead author of the report, ‘Illegal Logging and Related Trade: Indicators of the Global Response’, told IPS that combating illegal logging is of paramount importance.

“Illegal logging is one of the prime drivers of deforestation worldwide,” he said, “and deforestation in turn is contributing to climate change and the destruction of livelihoods and the environment of the species that inhabit the forest.”

The report focuses on the industry as a whole, from production to processing to consumption, by examining countries involved in each step of the supply chain. Forests in the “producer” countries are harvested for timber (Brazil, Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia, and Ghana), which is processed (China and Vietnam), and sold in “consumer” countries (the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and the Netherlands).

According to the report, illegal logging has declined by 50 percent in Cameroon, between 50 and 75 percent in the Brazilian Amazon, and by 75 percent in Indonesia in the last decade. By reducing illegal logging in these three nations, the report estimates that up to 17 million hectares of forest have been saved from degradation – more land than England and Wales combined.

By minimising illegal logging in tropical forests in Cameroon, Brazil, and Indonesia, the report states, the release of up to 14.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide may be prevented—a number equivalent to half of the total amount of carbon dioxide released by human actions each year.

Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide is crucial to efforts to combat global warming. “If we can reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the environment as a result of deforestation, we make it less likely that the planet will warm in a detrimental way,” Lawson told IPS. “It’s about mitigating and trying to reduce the effect of climate change.”

In addition to global environmental benefits, the reduction of illegal logging activities directly benefits communities that depend on tropical forests for their livelihoods. The Chatham report found that if timber was harvested legally in the three countries under governmental regulations, an estimated 6.5 billion dollars could be raised. The report notes that this number is more than twice the amount spent each year in overseas aid for primary school education.

Although the report’s findings are positive, illegal logging remains a significant issue across the globe. The report points to the fact that as patent instances of illegal logging are identified and disbanded, other practices that are less visible are becoming a larger problem, such as legal companies logging outside permitted areas and the illegal issuance of permits to clear forests for agricultural plantations.

As of last year, the illegal logging industry has contributed to the degradation of up to five million hectares of forest around the world and the yearly release of up to three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The problem of illegal harvesting of timber is only one element in the production process; illegal consumption is equally crucial to address. In 2008, the report found, companies in the five “consumer” countries purchased a total of 17 million cubic meters of illegal timber and wood products, worth approximately 8.4 billion dollars. Most of the timber was in the form of processed products like plywood and furniture.

Currently, a variety of laws and regulations designed to combat the issue of illegal logging are being implemented in the EU and the US. In the EU, as a result of Voluntary Partnership Agreements, progress in the regulation and policing of the timber industry is gaining momentum.

In the U.S., a piece of legislation called the Lacey Act has been amended to make the handling of illegally harvested timber an illegal act. Last week, on Jul. 7, the EU parliament approved similar legislation that will take effect in 2012.

The next step, the report states, is for other countries heavily involved in the production and consumption of timber to approve similar measures. A main focus is on China, the top importer and exporter of illegal timber—the country currently imports about 20 million cubic meters of illegal wood annually, more than all five “consumer” countries combined.

“The most important next step is for Japan and China to implement the kind of legislation that the US has and the EU is in the process of implementing,” Lawson told IPS. “If they did so, that would mean all the biggest markets in the world have been shut to illegal timber.”

“The systems and regulation of environmental controls in place are meaningless if most of the logging takes place illegally,” he said. “Enforcement is the critical factor.”

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