Illegal logging is the leading cause of forest degradation worldwide. As demand increases for timber, paper and other wood-based products, forests are increasingly exploited by illegal loggers who violate national and subnational laws by
- harvesting trees from protected areas and trading them illegally
- using false licences
- extracting trees at much higher volumes than they are permitted to.
This illicit industry accounts for up to 10 percent of all timber traded globally, with China being a major destination for the contraband wood.
Europe, Australia and the U.S. all have legislation which combat illegal imports of timber. However, countries such as China and Japan don’t have this in place which incentivises this illicit trade and undermines those governments which are trying to tackle the problem. More international pressure is required to encourage this to change.
One of the greatest challenges to saving our forests is government and military complicity. In Honduras one conflict between campaigners and illegal logging companies resulted in the death of up to 120 protestors but not one ended in a conviction at court. Colombia is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries for environmental reporters where journalists have been killed by military officers. Despite making global headlines these cases are often dropped by the Colombian government.
In such corrupt countries illegal timber extraction has become an important source of income. Funds are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds so crimes like these often go unpunished. Without the support of government agencies rangers and judges are often intimidated or bribed into not enforcing the law.
So what impact does illegal logging have…
On the environment?
Deforestation drives climate change. Tropical rain forests absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide each year easing global warming. But harvesting them not only results in less trees to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere but the cut trees also release all their stored CO2 back into the atmosphere. In addition to this further greenhouse gasses are emitted from the machinery used to cut and transport the timber. All of these increase the speed and severity of global warming. However illegal logging threatens not only tropical rainforests but all of the most valuable forests of the world.
Many trees take 100’s of years to reach their full size and they support biodiversity by providing food and shelter for many species. Of course, trees occasionally fall naturally this releases nutrients back into the ground as they rot. However, when illegal logging occurs gaping holes are left where ancient trees once stood. Huge spaces in the canopy are opened up and the suns heat dries out the once moist ground and can cause severe temperature fluctuations. No nutrients are released back into the ground and the surrounding area is trampled. Trees also aid water cycles by releasing water vapour back into the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles former forests can become barren, uninhabitable deserts.
Deforestation has a huge impact on the environment and a devastating impact on the world’s remaining forests with illegal logging being one of the largest contributors to the problem. The most dramatic impact is the loss of habitat for millions of species which cannot survive when their homes are destroyed. 80% of terrestrial plant and animal species are found in forests and tropical rainforests can be home to more species than any other habitat.
The degradation of forests endangers the survival of thousands of plant and animal species and destabilises ecosystems. Yet forests continue to be removed at a rate 10 times higher than they can possibly regrow.
Poor communities in developing countries are often completely reliant on forests for food, fuel for heating and cooking, shelter, medicine and an income. But they have little control over the ownership of their land, which they are losing to logging companies. Illegal logging has contributed to conflicts with local communities, corruption, violence and the worsening of poverty.
Activists, rangers and indigenous people are often the only obstacles between the forest and illegal loggers. They are regularly threatened and at it’s estimated that at least two people are killed each week defending their forest. Community leaders are frequently targeted as a strategy to spread fear and silence people. Therefore, many deaths aren’t reported and the number of murders are likely to be far higher than figures suggest.
Illegal logging hinders the efforts of a governments ability to implement sustainable forestry. Illegal logging results in lost revenue which would have been generated from legal logging and challenges the livelihood of responsible companies. The taxes and duties collected from legal loggers help to manage the illegal ones. Without paying taxes timber prices are pushed down which incentivises other companies to do the same. This in turn leads to further losses to the government and the cycle continues.