Forestry, by its very nature, is a challenging industry. From devastating tree diseases to unpredictable weather events to volatile global markets, players in the forestry sector must confront difficult circumstances at every turn. Yet none of these problems is more pervasive or destructive than the industry’s most perennial scourge: timber mafias.

Timber mafias can be found all over the globe, from South America to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and India. Able to bypass traceability and sustainability standards on both national and international levels, timber mafias can generate huge profits from the illegal sale of timber. Usually taken from native forests or forests with strict harvest regulations, this black market timber is estimated to represent up to 30% of the global forestry trade.

Timber mafias employ a range of sophisticated techniques to hide their activities, say global regulatory agencies. Timber mafias have been caught forging permits, hacking trade databases, bribing officials, and hiding illegal timber amongst legal stocks. Relying on the extensive resources of the world of organized crime, timber mafias are able to cover their tracks with increasing effectiveness.

Indeed, officials say that the amount of timber extracted and sold illegally has in fact risen, despite global efforts to curtail the spread of this type of crime. Due to the high concealment ability of the timber mafias, much of the supposed legal timber trade is actually controlled by mafias. Drawn in by high profits and low risks, these mafias are often extensions of existing crime networks that deal in drugs, smuggling, and extortion.

As global outcry over irresponsible forestry continues to mount, fighting the timber mafias will constitute a key facet of efforts to preserve native forests, especially in South America’s Amazon region. A report from the United Nations found that about 90% of all tropical deforestation comes at the hands of timber mafias. In countries such as Brazil, where the authority of the government has a difficult time penetrating into the isolated areas where illegal forestry takes place, timber mafias are often free to operate as they please.

Nonetheless, many nations and international bodies have taken a firm stand against timber mafias. The Global Green Supply Chain Network, formed last year in China, aims to unite players across the timber sector to combat illegal logging. Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama have taken strong steps to fight the black market timber trade. In 2017, Colombia instituted the Intersectoral Pact for Legal Timber, which has imposed strict standards to increase traceability. The FAO has cited this regulatory framework as a model for the region.

At downstream phases of timber supply chains, retailers and wholesalers must make a concerted effort to source legal timber. Construction companies, as well as providers of decking, sideboards, and joinery, must come together to reject wood acquired from unscrupulous sources. International certifications such as the Forestry Stewardship Council certification will aid in this effort.

Another key to fighting timber mafias is to raise awareness of illegal logging at the consumer level. Despite tightening international regulations, no real progress can be made until consumers begin to demand higher levels of traceability for timber products. Consumers both large and small must take it upon themselves to ask questions, be proactive, and demand higher standards for traceability and sustainability. Only by working together can players in the timber sector succeed in eliminating these vile timber mafias.

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