Organized Crime Plagues Logging Industry

Published: 02 October 2012


Illegal logging is on the rise, as organized crime groups develop more advanced systems of stealing or forging permits, concealing criminal activities, and even “laundering timber,” according to a new report.

The report, "Green Carbon, Black Trade," which comes as a joint effort of Interpol and the United Nations Environment Program, estimates that illegal logging now accounts for 50–90 percent of the volume of all forestry in key producer countries in the Amazon Basin and  Indonesia and is worth between US$30 and $100 billion annually.

Most methods of illegal logging fall into three categories: forging documents of authorization, laundering illegal wood – in other words, obscuring its origins, or bribing officials to ignore a blatantly illegal operation.

One other strategy the report mentioned involves constructing roads in protected areas under the guise of an authorized operation like mining, and deliberately targeting high-value timber in planning the route for that road's construction. That happened in 2008 in Sumatra, Indonesia, and when a local mayor complained, the local timber mafia put a price on his head, according to the UNEP's report.

This booming criminal industry wreaks havoc on local economies as well as the environment, the report said. It leeches at least $10 billion in revenue and tax income per year from the legitimate economy, according to the World Bank, and much of that comes out of compensation owed to the communities indigenous to foresting regions. Those communities don't have many options for alternatives income sources.

Meanwhile, the environmental impact is clear. Advances in regulating foresting and carbon emissions are of little use if such a robust shadow economy exists to undermine them. As the report stated, "if illegal logging cannot be controlled, it is inevitable that the global community’s efforts to reduce and offset carbon emissions will be undone."

To address the phenomenon, the UNEP and INTERPOL in their report advocated creating multidisciplinary law enforcement teams, centralizing national licensing and permiting processes, and implementing an international system of rating companies based on the likelihood of their complicity in illegal logging activities.

At the same time, the organizations noted that enforcement could be counter-productive, as stricter regulation sometimes only enhances the power, influence, and profitability of corrupt officials. This has already come to pass in Romania, Albania, and Vietnam where politicians have taken bribes to circumvent or ignore recently strengthened environmental regulations, the report said.