Progress in the battle against illegal logging

Illegal logging is a scourge for many developing nations, imperiling forests and biodiversity and robbing the government of direly needed revenues.  So it's heartening to hear that the battle against illegal logging is gaining some traction.

Ill-gotten timber?  (photo by William Laurance)

Ill-gotten timber? (photo by William Laurance)

A key development has been the growing impact of laws or regulations designed to reduce illegal trade in timber-consuming nations.  These include the European Union's FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) measures, the Lacey Act in the U.S., and Australia's Illegal-Logging Prohibition Act.

All of these measures put teeth into rules that regulate timber imports.  In essence, they require companies importing timber to use 'due diligence' to ensure that the wood or paper products they import are legal. 

Heavy penalties can apply for those who knowingly or negligently flaunt the law.

According to recent reports by Chatham House, a leading U.K. think tank, high-risk timber imports are falling for most timber-importing nations, including the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, and the Netherlands.  Australia's legislation is only beginning to be enforced now.

The Chatham House reports suggest that Japan is lagging somewhat, because it imports lots of wood and paper products from China, Russia, and Malaysia, all of which are thought to deal frequently in illegal timber.

This progress is definitely good news, and it illustrates the importance and impact of legislation that tightens the rules for timber importers. 

Notably, opponents of such laws -- including the notorious timber lobbyist Alan Oxley -- have long argued that these measures were unnecessary and would be ineffective.  The Chatham House reports clearly show such arguments are wrong.


China's massive role in illegal logging

China produces more wood and paper products than any nation on Earth.  Sadly, much of it comes from illegal timber.

Bound for China...

Bound for China...

China's timber is mostly imported from developing nations -- especially from the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America -- as well as Siberia. 

And much of that timber is illegal -- effectively stolen, because no royalties or taxes are paid.  Or the timber is acquired by bribery.  Or it results from logging in places that shouldn't be logged -- such as national parks and protected areas.

Illegal logging takes a terrible toll on native forests and is a massive driver of deforestation and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.  It also robs developing nations of tens of billions of dollars yearly in direly needed revenues -- funds that could be used for schools and hospitals, for instance.

China has been criticized for its role in illegal logging for many years -- and for good reasons.  ALERT director Bill Laurance has frequently voiced his concerns -- for instance, see here, here, here, and here.

And now a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests that China's belated efforts to limit illegal logging are far too limited. 

New logging guidelines issued by China -- which are entirely voluntary -- do not regulate importers of illegally-logged timber into China, said the EIA. 

Instead of voluntary standards, the Chinese government should establish binding and enforceable laws for its timber importers, just as the E.U., USA, and Australia have done.

“As the world’s biggest importer of illegal wood, and in light of extensive irrefutable evidence that Chinese companies are complicit in driving destructive illegal logging and timber smuggling, China needs to move beyond unenforceable voluntary guidelines and take unequivocal actions to prohibit illegal timber”, said the EIA.

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

China is playing with fire here.  As it fails to clean up its act, its wood-product-exporting corporations become increasingly vulnerable to boycotts and other consumer actions.  Such actions can have a big impact on a corporation's market share.

Of course, China is not alone.  For instance, South Korea, India, and Thailand are also major importers of illegal timber.

But when it comes to illegal timber imports, China is the biggest, hungriest bear in the room.  And so far this bear has done far too little to limit its burgeoning appetite for illegal timber.

Logging chaos in Papua New Guinea

How bad is illegal logging in Papua New Guinea?  Pretty awful, if you believe the Asia-Sentinel, which claims the illicit timber trade is "raping" the country.

The perils of payoff...  raw logs destined for China

The perils of payoff...  raw logs destined for China

Those are strong words indeed, but they're backed up by an in-depth report from Chatham House, a respected UK think-tank that's widely regarded as an authority on illegal logging. 

According to the report, around 70% of the timber harvested in the country is illegal--the result of extensive breaches of harvesting regulations by loggers, and abuses of licenses that are supposed to support commercial agricultural plantations

The report's author, Sam Lawson, said the biggest problem is frequent collusion between loggers and corrupt government officials.  Lawson told the environmental website that "The logging industry in Papua New Guinea is very powerful, while the government is extremely weak."

For instance, the largest logging firm in Papua New Guinea, the Malaysian mega-corporation Rimbunan Hijau, owns one of two national newspapers in the country.  It's newspaper, The National, is notoriously biased in its coverage of logging issues.

Who benefits from illegal logging?  Most of Papua New Guinea's timber ends up in China, which has become a virtual black-hole for timber supplies globally.  China usually buys only raw timber, often at bargain-basement prices, which is the least economically beneficial way for a country like PNG to exploit its forests.

And with rampant corruption, even these meager economic benefits are being squandered.  Profits from logging end up concentrated in the hands of a few, not benefiting most of the country's citizenry.

Perhaps the rape analogy, while brutal, isn't entirely inappropriate for Papua New Guinea.  It's one of the reasons that ALERT works actively to highlight the scale of illegal logging and to support anti-illegal-logging legislation worldwide.