The truth about illegal logging

Today Cites delegates have made a bold move to protect endangered rainforests from deforestation. They’ve agreed greater protection for species of rosewood and ebony from South East Asia, South America and Madagascar. By protecting these rare habitats it also protects the many species of endangered animals that make these forests their home. However this doesn’t prevent illegal logging unless the international community acts on these restrictions. In the case of ebony and rosewood the primary market is China. For these restrictions to be effective the Chinese government must act to curb their growing black market in timber.

This is not as easy as you might think. An audit of Ikea’s timber usage revealed that 100% of the timber used for making furniture in China was illegal. On one side of the border in Siberia the trade in timber is controlled by the Russian Mafia, timber from illegal logging being added at all points from logging camps to export yards at the Chinese border. The practices of bribery and intimidation result in legal and illegal timber being indistiguishable from each other at the point of export. On the other side of the border in China the import yards are controlled by the Triad. Many factories cut their costs by buying their timber direct from the Triad, having it stolen from the import yards to order bypassing the import taxes paid by the legitimate timber merchants. In theory when you buy a new chair, wardrobe or table from any furniture supplier you should be able to trace it back using the bar code on the box. That barcode sits on a computer at the supplier’s main office and is tied to an invoice order at the assembly plant. The assembly plant can then tie that up with an order number at the timber importer which goes back to the timber exporter. This timber, usually in the form of cut wood, has a number that will be traced back to the log from which it was sawn, which can then be traced to the tree and the number on the tree can be traced back to the very stump that it was cut from using a GPS tag. But when a 30 foot tree suddenly becomes 300 feet of logs at the sawmill it quickly becomes clear that the wood being used is actually untraceable.

Other companies however have taken very stringent steps to ensure that their wood is legally sourced. From the point of tagging the tree to exporting the finished furniture they have put in place systems that ensure that the amount of wood used in their furniture matches the estimates from the initial felling of the tree. This is how the majority of our hardwood furniture is imported into Europe from Indonesia and Malaysia. By removing the ability for illegal loggers to sell their timber it protects the rainforests, but at the cost of higher prices in the shops in Europe. This is a system being deployed across the world but which is being perverted by one of the main supporters of the system. The US State Department. And the reason is very simple, money. As one of the major shareholders in opening up legal logging schemes in emerging markets the US State Department has actually made it easier to trade in illegal timber.

The prime purpose of the scheme deployed by the US State Department in partnership with the Liberian government is to collect tax. At every stage of the process from issuing logging licenses to export the timber is taxed. You pay a tax to buy the logging concession. You pay a tax to tag your trees with a GPS barcode. You pay a tax to convert the trees to felled lumber. You pay a tax to convert the lumber to logs. You pay a tax to sell the lumber to local markets and a further tax to sell the rest to the export market. At any point where the timber is converted from one form to another a tax is paid on that conversion, a proportion of which is paid back to the US State Department as shareholder. In theory this should prevent any illegal timber from entering the market at any point but for one thing. Under the rules of the scheme agreed between the US State Department and the Liberian government any logs or trees found by civilians in the forests of Liberia, rather than be destroyed, can be deemed legal if taken to the relevant point on the supply chain and taxed. The very fact of selling the timber to the logging yard and paying a fee back to the government has the timber declared legal. This has two effects. Firstly, it ensures that all timber exported from Liberia is legal, potentially the only country worldwide that can claim 100% of their exports are legally sourced. And secondly it creates a thriving black market that knows that all they have to do to sell illegal timber is pay a fee to the Liberian government.

In order to ensure that the planet’s forests are protected it takes a very simple and real step. The world must accept that there is only so much wood that can be harvested per year and accept the higher prices that come with it. Governments around the world must do more to protect natural forest, not just from illegal loggers, but from farmers using weak legislation to expand farmland and from emerging climate companies from converting rich biodiverse rainforest into palm oil plantations. You cannot protect this planet’s forests buy chopping them down. Schemes that can have a very real impact must be implemented with protection as the main goal, and not taxation.