Guest Article #12

Clear-cut Crime Scenes: Why the International Day of Forests Matters

The International Day of Forests is an important opportunity to remind ourselves of the vital role forests play for the world's environment, people's health, and the economic well-being of many forest-rich but cash-poor countries. It is also an important time to acknowledge, honestly, the level of forest destruction and the lawlessness on this “final frontier.” 

Forests are a reservoir of biodiversity, providing habitat for more than two-thirds of the world's terrestrial species. Deforestation and habitat loss are the leading causes of species extinction. Forests are also home to 200 million people, while a quarter of the world's population, at least 1.6 billion people, depends on forests for their survival – as their source of food, medicine, shelter and fuel.

Protecting the world's natural forests is also crucial to tackling climate change. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as the Earth's green lungs to keep the biosphere in balance. Logging releases that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere: deforestation is estimated to cause approximately 17 percent of global carbon emissions, more than all the world's air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The scientific studies are done and the consensus is clear. The only way to avoid irreversible climate change is for the global community to both reduce industrial emissions of greenhouse gases and establish mechanisms that effectively protect forests from further degradation or deforestation.

The world's forests, however, are under serious threat from illegal logging. Every two seconds, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers. In fact, 15 to 30 percent of all timber traded globally is estimated to come from illegal sources. In some key forested countries, the situation is even worse, with 50-90 percent of timber exports qualifying as illegal. The highest rates of deforestation can be found in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia.

Forests have always been vulnerable to illegal logging because many forests, particularly tropical forests, are located in jurisdictions with weak governance, poor regulatory regimes, and often systemic issues of corruption. At the same time, forests are located in large and remote areas, making it hard for law enforcement to effectively monitor illegalities.

Illegal logging operations are often the most environmentally destructive, with logging operators moving into forests extracting what they can quickly, with little regard for methods that could protect the local ecosystem. Such extractions can also pollute water sources and cause landslides. Illegal logging operations run by criminal gangs (that are often armed) can deny forest-dependent communities access to food, medicine and fuel, all of which they can usually obtain from the forest.

In recent years, INTERPOL has observed an increase in the involvement of organized transnational crime in the forest sector. These criminal networks are highly sophisticated, relying on legitimate and quasi-legitimate business structures to mask their activities, including creative accounting to launder the proceeds of criminality, colluding with senior government officials, and computer hacking to obtain fake forestry permits.

Illegal logging, related tax fraud, money laundering and the corruption supporting it, costs governments at least US$30 billion every year. This is revenue stolen from some of the world's poorest countries, which rely on forests and natural resources as the backbone of their development. Illegal logging also floods the market with cheap wood, suppressing global timber prices between 7 and 16 percent. This costs law-abiding members of the timber industry a further US$30 billion per year in lost profits.

Tackling forest crime, particularly illegal logging, should be the first step in the battle to save the world's forests. Addressing forest crime is necessary not only to protect the forest ecosystem, but also to promote the economic viability of countries, their political stability and improve public health and national security.

Law enforcement officers in most timber producing countries, however, face many challenges, including inadequate legislation, low wages, little training and poor equipment, which must be addressed and overcome if forest crime is to be brought under control. Their efforts need the support of the international community – particularly timber-importing countries, which have an obligation to provide the financial and technical support needed to strengthen law enforcement and forest governance. But even these efforts will come to nothing if demand for cheap and illegal timber remains. Timber-importing countries must do more to strengthen their own law enforcement actions at home, supported by increased cooperation, information and intelligence exchange among all INTERPOL member countries.