Illegal logging is a massive environmental and economic problem that has plagued governments for decades. One of the principal causes of deforestation worldwide, illegal logging can take a variety of forms, from harvesting timber from protected areas to felling protected tree species to falsifying timber licences. Many international organizations have taken a stand against illegal logging, and consumers are now demanding stricter standards for imported timber.
Illegal logging can have far-reaching and devastating consequences. The widespread deforestation it causes can inflict huge damage on animal habitats, and can deprive local communities of the chance at a sustainable livelihood. Illegal logging has also played a significant role in the illegal conversion of forests to agricultural land, which is one of the key drivers of deforestation.
Damage to the global timber market is equally impactful, and the World Bank estimates that illegal logging deprives governments of up to $5 billion in tax revenue annually. By flooding the market with timber that is not subject to taxes or duties, illegal timber also puts downward pressure on global timber prices, resulting in an estimated loss to $10 billion for the legal timber market.
Some of the most effective measures taken to combat illegal logging have come from countries with strong import markets for wood products. In the United States, for example, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) oversees the quality of wood products, labelling only those products made from material that was sourced from responsibly managed forests.
In Europe, importers are increasingly favoring products with the FSC label, often preferring higher standards such as the ISO 14001:2015. In addition, the European Union Timber Regulation forces suppliers to trace their products back to the source, ensuring that only legally verified timber can enter European markets.
Indeed, legally sourced plantation timber often contributes to reforestation efforts, as in the case of Colombia, where government programs and private enterprise have added tens of thousands of hectares of new forest.
However, standards are more difficult to enforce in countries where government power has failed to penetrate into the isolated areas where timber is often sourced. In Myanmar and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the rate of illegal logging is estimated at 85%. However, as development accelerates, the integration of the timber supply chain will facilitate government efforts to track down and punish illegal timber operations.
As global demand for timber continues to rise, the expansion of certification will also depend greatly on the demands of consumers in rapidly growing markets such as India and China, the world’s number one wood importer. With China increasingly relying on timber from Russia, where regulations are sparse, illegal timber will likely constitute a significant portion of Chinese imports.
Whether carried out by local communities, organized crime networks, or corrupt government officials, illegal logging is a serious crime that inflicts massive damage to the environment and the global timber market alike. At every phase of the supply chain, people must work together to ensure that the world’s timber is sourced legally and sustainably.