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Fostering Citizen Enforcement and Rule of Law Could Cut Down Illegal Logging

“The trade in illegal timber products—those harvested and exported in contravention of the law of the producer country—is entangled in corruption, conflict, insecure land rights, and poor governance,” said Sandra Nichols Thiam, Senior Attorney of the Environmental Law Institute. She moderated a panel titled “Citizen Enforcement in the Forestry Sector” hosted by the Environmental Law Institute that explored illegal logging within the forest sector.Illegal harvesting of timber accounts for roughly 50 percent to 90 percent of forest activities in major producing countries within the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, said Thiam. This illegal timber trade is estimated to be worth from $30 billion to 100 billion dollars annually. Dismantling this extensive illegal enterprise would help promote biodiversity conservation, climate mitigation, human rights and sustainable development.

Increase Information, Increase Enforcement     

One of the strongest weapons to fight the illegal harvest and trade of timber is information. Increasing the knowledge and data surrounding tree identification and tree harvesting can “strengthen the capacities of civil society organizations, governments, and the private sector to detect, identify, and sanction illegal logging,” said Ruth Noguerón. She is a Senior Associate at the Forests Program with the World Resources Institute (WRI).

To develop the crucial databases, WRI has worked with citizen science organizations to bolster civic participation in the sample collection process. The Global Forest Watch Initiative gives citizens an easily accessible, mobile friendly forest monitoring platform—the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alert system, said Noguerón. This mobile app makes it easy for people to collect data, take pictures, and record information regarding tree loss in real time, said Noguerón. Equipping civilians with the tools and information necessary to monitor compliance will force illegal logging out of the shadows and into the public arena where justice can be pursued, she said.

Demand Side Drivers

Countries “that don’t have laws prohibiting the import of illegal timber very often have much higher percentages of illegal timber imports,” said Melissa Blue Sky, Staff Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). While steps have been take to curb the import of illegal timber, even in the United States, where the Lacey Act prohibits the trade in illegally sourced wood products, about 45 percent of wood imports come from unsupervised areas. There is no way to ensure the legality of harvest without oversight, and some companies exploit this loophole. Therefore, enforcing demand-side laws is crucial, said Sky. Companies need to be able to prove that their wood is coming through legal avenues.  

Bolstering Rule of Law

Focusing on the financial crimes associated with illegal operations is another way to crack down on the illegal logging industry. Interpol’s Project Leaf initiative has partnered with its anti-corruption unit to target the tax evasion, money laundering, and corruption that help finance this illicit trade system, said Shelley Gardner, the Illegal Logging Program Coordinator with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. Gardner works closely with Interpol’s Forestry Crime Working Group.  

Encouraging governments to comply with international trade standards for wood products will help reduce the extensive network of illegal operations. Presently, there is motivation to at least present an image of legality. In many cases, illegal logging involves the willing participation of government officials to construct this appearance of legitimacy, said Sky and “until they are held accountable for that, you don’t get at the root of the problem.”     

Sources: Center for International Environmental Law, Forest Legality Initiative, Forest Trends, Global Forest Watch, Interpol, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund