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Hard-won battles against illegal logging are paying off

By Mason Inman

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? We could ask the same about trees cut down illegally around the world. If governments, watchdog groups, and journalists aren’t there to hear it–that is, to track what’s happening–then it seems it doesn’t get heard.

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At the height of the trade in 2004-5, on average, one log truck carrying about 15 tonnes of timber logged illegally in Burma crossed an official Chinese checkpoint every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

(Credit: Global Witness)

The world’s remaining natural forests have been subject to widespread illegal logging. Loggers have snuck into national parks to cut down trees. They’ve felled trees on steep slopes, where they’re not supposed to cut, since it causes erosion that damages forests and rivers. And they’ve lied about how many trees they’re cutting, so they can pay less in taxes.

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Chinese log trucks, Mount Imawburn; January 2007

(Credit: BirdLife International)

But the good news is that, when people are monitoring the forests and the timber trade, they can put a halt to much of this illegal logging. A new report from Chatham House, a London-based think tank that’s also known as the The Royal Institute of International Affairs, finds that there’s been a big drop in illegal logging in the past several years in some of the countries where the problem was the worst.

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The study’s lead author, Sam Lawson of Chatham House, said, “Decision makers often say, ‘OK, I agree illegal logging is a problem. But can we make a difference?’” According to the new study, he added, “it can be done, and can be done in a cost-effective way.”

The report–titled “Illegal Logging and Related Trade” (3.5 MB pdf file) and published today–estimated how much illegal logging has dropped over the past decade, and what made the difference.

In the west African country of Cameroon, there’s only half as much illegal logging as in 2000, the study estimates. In Brazil’s Amazonian forests, illegal logging dropped by 50 to 75 percent, and Indonesia registered an even bigger drop–75 percent.

Lawson has been studying illegal logging for a decade, and he suspected it was on the decline in these countries. “But the scale of the reduction–that came as a surprise,” he said.

They got these estimates through a number of methods, including comparing the legally permitted amount of logging with the amount of timber actually on the market, and also through interviews with local government officials and members of watchdog groups.

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Momentum Company log trucks, crossing the Way Hie River; April 2007

(Credit: Global Witness)

There’s no silver bullet for stopping illegal loggers, the study found. Instead, many different efforts, by a variety of parties, have combined to make a difference.

In Cameroon, monitoring by an independent group, which works with the government and is funded by international donors, has helped the country enforce its logging laws. In Indonesia, “one of the things that’s been important has just been general improvement in governance,” Lawson said. As corruption in general dropped, he said, so did illegal logging.

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Consultation of the Oda community in Ghana (part of Multi-stakeholder dialogue facilitated by the EU Chainsaw Milling Project).

(Credit: Tropenbos International – EU Chainsaw Milling Project)

With the big drop in illicit tree harvesting in Indonesia, Brazil, and Cameroon–which have some of the largest natural forests left on Earth–that means the problem has declined by about one-quarter worldwide.

Illegal logging far from gone

The problem of illegal logging is far from gone, however. Illegal harvesting still makes up a big portion of the total timber industry–about a quarter to a third of all logs in Cameroon, for example, and between one-third and two-thirds in the Brazilian Amazon.

Outside of the countries examined in the new study, there’s probably been little drop in illegal logging, Lawson said, because other countries haven’t made such concerted of an effort to stop the illicit lumber trade.

So there’s still a lot of trees being felled illegally–enough that, if laid end-to-end, they’d encircle Earth ten times.

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Log trucks stuck in Pangwah; April 2006

(Credit: Global Witness)

Recent efforts in the countries that buy up much of the world’s internationally traded wood–the United States, European countries, and Japan–could help clamp down further on illegal logging.

In 2005 the European Union voted in a new regulation that all government projects can only use timber that’s been proven to be legally harvested. And in 2008, the U.S. passed a law making it illegal for companies and consumers to use illegally harvested wood–the world’s first such ban. The EU is following suit, with its Parliament voting earlier this month for a similar law. “This is a huge step,” Lawson said, which “has been in the works for a long time.”

Such laws on the consumer end haven’t been in effect very long yet, Lawson points out, so they probably haven’t made much of an impact yet. But they will, Lawson thinks. “There’s a lot of improvement in the pipeline,” he said.

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Mason Inman is a Pakistan-based journalist who contributes regularly to National Geographic News. His work has also been published by New Scientist, Science, Scientific American Mind, Seed, Technology Review, Nature Reports Climate Change, and other publications. Read more about him and his work on his blog Failing Gracefully.