Interpol: Illegal Timber Industry Endangers Both Humans and Wildlife

Published: 16 December 2020

After harvesting the most valuable woods, the forests are often burned to make space for other enterprises. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After harvesting the most valuable woods, the forests are often burned to make space for other enterprises. (Photo: INTERPOL, License)

By David Klein

The world’s most lucrative environmental crime, the illegal timber industry, is valued at more than US$152 billion a year, Interpol reported after a decade of documenting the crime.

“The illegal timber industry accounts for up to 90% of tropical deforestation in some countries and attracts the world’s biggest organized crime groups,” the agency said Monday in a statement.

It also warned that such crime causes “serious economic, environmental and social damage and fuels conflict in forest regions where criminal gangs compete for available markets.”

According to the international law enforcement agency, even when deforestation is conducted by legitimate entities, crime and corruption exists at almost every step of the process.

“Tax evasion, corruption, violent crime, fraud and money laundering, and even the hacking of government websites to obtain permits, are commonplace on the forestry crime landscape,” Interpol said.

Currently, the most valued hardwood is rosewood. Largely found in South America and South Asia, it’s become an endangered species due to overexploitation.

Interpol claims that rosewood’s value multiplies almost 700 times as it is sold from loggers through a chain of harvesters, transporters, processors and traders before it appears on the open market. Ultimately, rosewood logs can go for as much $50,000 per cubic meter.

Those high profit margins make it an attractive funding source for criminal and terrorist groups with few qualms in engaging in enterprises outside the law.

“Al-Shabaab, a violent terrorist group responsible for several major attacks in Somalia and Kenya, has been one of the main beneficiaries of the illegal charcoal trade,” according to Interpol. Charcoal is a byproduct of burning hardwood.

Also, after harvesting the most valuable woods, the forests are often burned to make space for other enterprises.

“Criminal forest fires aimed at freeing up land for agriculture and cattle can destroy the equivalent of one football field every six seconds for months on end,” Interpol warned.

It underlined that as corrupt actors and criminal groups burn forests, not only do they endanger species of trees essential for human life on the planet, but they destroy entire ecosystems and habitats, and expose humans to previously un-encountered diseases and pathogens.

“Human encroachment into forested areas, driven by illegal logging and agricultural expansion, is increasing human contact with wildlife’s infectious diseases, which drives their transmission to humans, particularly when the demolition of forests displaces disease-carrying species out of the forest and into urban areas,” Interpol said.

The agency believes that in fighting this problem, police forces around the world need to employ many of the same tactics they do against international drug traffickers. It underlined that those include high levels of international cooperation and all inclusive investigation that focus on uncovering networks not just catching individual offenders.

“Tackling forestry crime is comparable to the global war against drugs: the crime and the criminals keep on adapting,” Interpol concluded.