20120531-Cambodia Koh_Kong_logging.JPG
logging in Cambodia
Illegal logging is a serious problem in many places, particularly Indonesia, Cambodia and some parts of Africa. The loggers, often employed by rogue companies, cut down trees in violation of national conservation laws and outside the control of governments.

According to the New York Times, “Vast swaths of rain forest continue to vanish every year, much of it through illegal timber operations. And problems persist in legally sanctioned logging as well, as producers bribe officials to allow overharvesting, submit false data to the authorities on the type of trees being logged or otherwise skirt the law. “The illegal issuance of licenses is part of the problem that’s been addressed relatively little,” Sam Lawson, a researcher with Chatham House, told the New York Times. [Source: John Collins Rudolf, New York Times]

Illegal logging is often just as likely to take place in national parks as it is to take place anywhere else. The wood is often smuggled to another country, ultimately making its way to developed countries. In addition to destroying rainforests and causing deforestation, it deprives developing countries of an estimated $18 billion annually in lost revenues.

According to a World Wide Fund report the European Union is contributing to the destruction of the rainforest in Africa, Asia and Latin America by purchasing illegally logged timber, much of via China. The report said Britain was “the biggest importer of illegal timber” in Europe accounting for the loss of 600,000 hectares---more than twice the size of Luxembourg---a year. Finland, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands were also major purchasers.

Illegal logging is also devastating in that it floods the market with cheap timber imports, which hurts domestic lumber markets and forest management in the countries that import the timber, which increases demand for imports.

“Illegal logging” remains a somewhat nebulous term in many producer countries because of weak or limited regulations. The American Forest and Paper Association estimates that illegal logging costs the U.S. timber and wood products industry $1 billion a year. America’s grade lumber exports have soared in recent years as overseas suppliers look for hardwood products that can reenter the United States without a problem. [Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post November 13, 2011]

Illegal Logging in Indonesia

Illegal logging in Thailand
Since the fall of Suharto the rate of illegal logging has increased dramatically. By some estimates illegal logging accounts for four fifths of all the harvested timber in Indonesia and 70 percent of all the sawmills in Indonesia are illegal. Since 1996, legal and illegal logging in Indonesia consumes about 5 million acres of rain forest a year. The Rain Forest Network estimated in 2003 that illegal logging in Indonesia produces about 50 million cubic meters of wood per year which has a value of around $3.5 billion.

The rain forests in Borneo and Sumatra are particularly threatened by illegal logging. Illegal logging in Indonesia has caused, according to one scientific report, a “biological catastrophe.” Much of the wood from illegally harvested hardwoods ends up in the United States, Europe, Japan and China.

Even in Indonesia’s 376 national park and conservation areas centuries-old trees are being felled just as quickly as chainsaws can be turned loose on them. Some parks have been so devastated they can no longer be regarded as nature reserves.

Illegal Logging Trade in Indonesia

Eighteen timber barons are reportedly responsible for most of the illegal logging in Indonesia . They generally work with local politicians and military officers, all of who reap huge profits. The logging is usually carried out by men employed by syndicates who provide chainsaws and tell the loggers where to go. One of the biggest losers is the government that loses an estimated $1 billion in lost tax revenues from the practice each year.

Under Suharto, the logging industry was controlled by a few Suharto cronies and the central government. After Suharto was ousted more power was given to the local and regional governments, who opened up forest in their jurisdictions to logging. Some of the money trickles down. Local police and soldiers are often bribed to look the other way when trucks loaded with illegal logs come passing through their turf. An atmosphere of bad governance has been created and in this atmosphere illegal logging thrives.

Once logs have been processed, it is impossible to determine whether they are legal or illegal. It is sort of like laundering money. In some case, illegal timber is processed and then exported as legal finished goods. But in Indonesia this is hardly necessary. Even though there is a ban on the export of raw logs from Indonesia dozens of ships carry such logs to Malaysia, Singapore and other places that processes the wood for re-export to the United States, Europe and other destinations.

Logging road, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Illegal Tree Cutters in Indonesia

Illegal logging is not something that is difficult to do. It requires relatively little manpower and overhead. The only expenses are labor, chainsaws and hiring trucks to carry the logs. The syndicates have no trouble finding cutters who are willing to work to earn money for a motorbikes and other desired things. Many have cutters have a choice of illegally cutting timber or facing poverty.

Illegal tree cutters usually work in teams of four, living in jungle camps when they work. During the day they cut logs and send them floating down rivers or attach them metal tracks which bring them to the rivers. Eventuality the logs reach sawmills on the rivers. At night the cutters sleep on platforms six or so feet off the ground for protection from snakes and tigers.

One illegal logger told the Los Angeles Times, “What we do is illegal. The forests belong to the people. All the people here are tree cutters. That’s how we survive---on logs.” The loggers face many dangers and tend to be superstitious and obey jungle taboos such as bathing naked and dangling one leg over the edge of the platform they sleep on.

Combating Illegal Logging

Illegal logging of rosewood_
According to a 2010 European Union report on the timber trade in Cameroon, to combat illegal logging: 1)increased transparency and accountability procedures are needed in the timber and wood businesses to prevent the kind of corruption and money laundering that are key to making the illegal logging industry thrive; 2) governments should pass laws that require businesses to only purchase wood that comes from a verifiable sources; and 3) countries need to promote their own forestry sectors to reduce their reliance on imports.

In some places, logs can only be exported if they have an CITES export permit. CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wold Fauna and Flora. As it stands now the export permits are easily fudged.

The European Union is exerting pressure by developing bilateral agreements with timber-producing countries that require third-party oversight of the logging process.In October 2005, the European Union announced a plan to cut down on illegal logging by establishing a legally binding licensing schemes to prevent import of illegal timber products that requires timber arriving in the European Union to have proof that it was legally cut. The European Union is hammering out a treaty for timber producing countries to put in place a more verifiable certification system and take other steps such as tightening customs procedures and setting up a system that tracks logs from felling to selling.

Illegal logging of rosewood_
In 2008 in the United States, an amendment to the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law, made it a crime to import illegally harvested timber into the United States---the first such international law to do so. “Until then, there was nothing to prevent illegally sourced timber from being imported and consumed anywhere in the world,” said Sam Lawson, a researcher with Chatham House and one of the authors of the illegal logging report. “It was open season.”

In Brazil, satellite systems have been beefed up to closely track deforestation and dispatch police to places where illegal logging is taking place.In December 2009, Japan, the United States and the European Union made a $12 million, three-year agreement with the Yokohama-based International Tropical Timber Organization to support measures by the governments of developing countries and NGOs to combat illegal logging and support environmentally-friendly forest management as part of the broader aim of tackling global warming. The effort will include cracking down on shipments carrying illegally logged timber and unraveling the networks in which such timber is shipped to importing countries.

The decline in illegal logging and total deforestation is also being witnessed in major timber-producing countries like Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia and Ghana, according to a new report by Chatham House, a British think tank. John Collins Rudolf wrote in the New York Times: “International pressure on nations like Cameroon, where an independent regulator financed by a coalition of donor countries now oversees the timber trade, have resulted in tighter controls over logging in general and reductions in overall deforestation and clear-cutting. Regulatory action by the United States and the European Union are helping to move producer nations toward sustainable forestry practices. [Source: John Collins Rudolf, New York Times]

Illegal Logging in Madagascar

illegal logging of rosewood in Madagascar
The environmental stakes are high as well. National parks in Madagascar have been decimated by illegal logging since a 2009 coup d’etat created political disarray there. In places such as Masoala National Park, a reserve affilated with the Zurich Zoo, poorly paid poachers create trails into the forest, consume forest lemurs and flying foxes to sustain themselves and fell five trees for every one of precious wood they take because ebony and rosewood timber cannot float on their own.[Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post November 13, 2011]

Reporting from Maroansetra, Madagascar,Barry Bearak wrote in the New York Times, “Exploiting a political crisis, Malagasy timber barons are robbing this island nation of its sylvan heritage, illegally cutting down scarce species of rosewood trees in poorly protected national parks and exporting most of the valuable logs to China. Hundreds of impoverished villagers earn $2.50 a day to trek into the far reaches of the rainforest. For a decade or more, this illicit trade existed on a small scale. But in the past year, it has increased at least 25-fold, according to environmental groups that have been tracking the outgoing shipments. They estimate the value of trees felled this past year at $167 million or more. [Source: Barry Bearak, New York Times, May 24, 2010]

This accelerated plunder of the rainforest coincided with a military coup in March 2009. Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, was installed as president, and he has since led a weakened and tottering government that is unable---and perhaps unwilling---to stop the trafficking. “The government does nothing because it shares in the money,” said Ndranto Razakamanarina, president of an association of Malagasy environmental groups and a policy officer with the World Wildlife Fund. “Many of the ministers think they’ll be in office only three or six months, so they decide to make money while they can. The timber mafia is corrupt, the ministers are corrupt.”

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is a place of extraordinary botanical abundance, with perhaps 14,000 species of plants, 90 percent of which exist nowhere else on earth. Saving the rosewood trees is now an international cause. Environmentalists check the manifests of outbound vessels, calculate the amount of timber in each container, and try to embarrass the owners of the wood and the participating shipping companies.

Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia andapensis)---reddish and superbly grained---is among the world’s most sought-after timber, especially since Asian sources of similar trees have been depleted. Critically endangered, it highly valued timber sed in the production of fine furniture and musical instruments. In China, the finished wood is primarily used to make replicas of antique furniture and musical instruments, some for export. It is estimated that 52,000 tonnes of rosewood and ebony were logged in north-east Madagascar in 2009, and this habitat is itself under threat from conversion to agriculture for a growing rural population.

Illegal Loggers in Madagascar

Illegal rosewood stockpiles
Barry Bearak wrote in the New York Times, “Here in Maroantsetra, a dusty town not far from Masoala National Park, the evidence of the assault on the forest is an open secret easily shared along the Antenambalana River. Some 500 rosewood logs lay stacked behind a padlocked bamboo fence in a storage lot surrounded by fields of corn and manioc. The inquisitive were shooed away by five young guards who lolled in the shade of a litchi tree.” “It would be easy for me to die if I gave information to someone from the outside,” said one of the gatekeepers in a firm but apologetic voice. [Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post November 13, 2011]

The trees were transported here by boat and metal canoe---or simply strapped atop an impromptu raft of other, more buoyant logs. The river also sits on Antongil Bay, and across the choppy water are coastal villages on the fringes of the Masoala forest. Many of the families owned land within what is now the national park, and say they were falsely promised payment for the appropriated property.

They feel a reverence for nature---and also an entitlement. “God gave us the forest so that we could take what we need,” said Francel, a 23-year-old man who uses only one name. “My ancestors are not angry. There are still many trees in the forest.” Francel, like others who carry axes into the mountains, finds it curious that rosewood is so valued. Other trees yield food---papaya, coconut, jackfruit.

But so much rosewood has been cut down that logging it gets harder by the month, villagers said. Now it can take two or three days to find a rosewood tree, even for men who have roamed the forest since childhood. They know how to open a trail with machetes and which plants have antiseptic powers.For rosewood excursions, the teams of men carry rice and cooking utensils. When they can, they flavor their meals with meat---eels taken from the springs, fruit bats caught with nets, even the highly endangered species of lemurs that vault through the trees.

Dragging away the timber is back-breaking labor. Men yank hard on the nylon ropes, rest, then yank again. “Rocks along the way can damage the wood, and you must be careful not to let the logs slide into a valley,” said Thomas Kiloka, 55, a sinewy grandfather who joins the loggers as a porter. He allowed that cutting down rosewood was against the law but said it was better for a poor man to take a tree from the woods than steal money from someone’s home. Besides, there was little chance of being caught. “It is a big forest,” he said.

Madagascar’s Feeble Efforts to Protect Its Forests

Illegal export of rosewood
Barry Bearak wrote in the New York Times, “Repeatedly, the government has announced new policies to halt the trade. “The exporters are strong, but so are we,” Prime Minister Camille Vital said in a recent interview. “Just last week, we arrested 52 of the people involved.” But the men in custody, as the prime minister admitted, were among the hundreds of impoverished villagers who earn $2.50 a day to trek into the far reaches of the rainforest. Two men can chop down even a thick, sturdy rosewood tree in an hour. Then it requires teams of 15 or 30 or 50 to pull the logs through the muddy up-and-down of the vine-covered woodland. [Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post November 13, 2011]

In October 2011, the government announced yet another decree to protect the affected forests of the northeast. The area includes two huge World Heritage sites: Marojejy National Park, where the rainforest descends into valleys of dense evergreens and rises into rocky-crested mountains; and Masoala National Park, on a broad peninsula where a high slope of virgin rainforest plunges to within feet of an unspoiled shore.

But the American ambassador, R. Niels Marquardt, dismissed the new regulations as “one big loophole.” Lisa Gaylord, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Whatever the law, this government always finds a way to grant an exception.” In the past, the government has sometimes seized illegal timber and fined the owners. But the penalties were much less than the value of the rosewood, and once the assessments were paid, the logs were authorized for export.

“The rosewood is piled up near the rivers; no one is trying to hide anything,” said Guy Suzon Ramangason, the director general of the organization that manages many of the parks. “Chinese businessmen pay the exporters and they in turn pay off the controllers like the police and the government.”

IKEA Uses less Certified Timber than Claimed, Says the Times

Illegal export of rosewood
In March 2011 The Times of London reportedly that furniture giant IKEA uses a lower proportion of certified sustainable timber than some staff are claiming in its UK stores. Reporter Ben Webster made the allegation after Times reporters, posing as shoppers, quizzed staff at two IKEA outlets, in Southampton and Edmonton in North London. The six people it asked, who included a store manager, said that all the timber in IKEA products was certified as sustainable. [Source: Times of London, March 20, 2011]

The article claimed that, in fact, only 16 percent of the wood IKEA used in 2010 was certified under the Forest Stewardship Council scheme. This contrasted with 88 percent of timber sold by B&Q and 65 percent by Focus DIY. It also fell short of the target of 30 percent that IKEA set itself for years ago for 2009. The Times said that Ikea also continued to purchase wood from areas where illegal logging was known to be a problem and “wood from uncertified forests in several countries, including China and Russia”.

IKEA global forestry manager Anders Hildeman defended the company’s policy of buying from areas where there might be illegal logging. He said that the company acted as an agent for change, encouraging sustainable forest management and inspecting its own suppliers annually. “If every responsible company withdrew from these regions, you would leave it to the murky traders and there would be no force for improvement,” he said. He said that Ikea had not hit its target on certified timber because of lack of availability and the fact that the company had grown and was selling more wood products overall. The Times article mentioned only FSC-certified timber and did not say whether IKEA used wood certified under other schemes.

Gibson Guitar Target of U.S. Illegal Logging Law

Concealing illegal rosewood
In 2009, the U.S. Congress expanded the United States’ oldest federal wildlife law to cover illegal logging. Juliet Eilperin wrote in the Washington Post,” But then federal investigators picked Gibson Guitar as the first target of the new provision, confiscating guitars and pallets of ebony two years ago that allegedly came from wood illegally logged in Madagascar. In August they seized more than 100,000 fingerboards allegedly made from imported Indian rosewood, along with electronic files.[Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post November 13, 2011]

Gibson Guitar’s chief executive , Henry Juszkiewicz, is striking back with efforts to amend the law, to provide more certainty not just for instrument manufacturers and dealers but also for musicians, who theoretically could run afoul of it by possessing instruments containing illegal wood. That’s put him in the spotlight of the conservative campaign against what some view as federal regulatory overreach, and he’s gained an eclectic band of allies---including tea party adherents and the Democrat who represents the home of country music.

“I’m being pulled into this involvement through the Justice Department action,” Juszkiewicz said. “I’m sort of in the frying pan and my thought process is, that’s wrong. . . . Let me look at what is the problem, and let me fix it.” Juszkiewicz’s campaign---which includes hiring the lobbying firm Crowell & Moring on retainer for more than $10,000 a month---has begun to yield results. In mid-October, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill that would protect anyone who unknowingly possesses wood that violates the Lacey Act from prosecution; exempt any wood products owned before May 22, 2008, from the law; and compel the federal government to publish an Internet database of illegal wood sources to inform the public.

Country music star Vince Gill and other musicians, such as Steve Bryant, who wrote the song “Keep Your Hands Off Our Wood,” argue that they could be held liable for old instruments without proper documentation.

Gibson and other major guitar manufacturers conducted a fact-finding mission in Madagascar in 2008. Taylor Guitars and Martin Guitars stopped obtaining wood from Madagascar, but according to an e-mail that has surfaced in the federal probe, a Gibson employee wrote that a local supplier could still obtain ebony from “the gray market.”

Juszkiewicz---who backs Cooper’s bill but is still seeking changes in it that would provide U.S. firms with greater certainty about what wood is acceptable to import---said he believes it is possible to obtain legitimately harvested wood from Madagascar. He said he decided to keep buying there because he doesn’t see “prohibition” as an answer. “How does that fix the problem?” he asked, adding that a better approach is to say, “We want to buy the wood from you, but we only want to buy the wood that’s good.”

Alexander Von Bismarck, who as executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency documented the illegal timber trade in Madagascar, said the country doesn't need that kind of help. “We found that the money that flows to the timber barons is systematically moved overseas while the logger in Madagascar gets a few dollars a day to break into a national park and steal wood,” he wrote. “That’s not supporting development, that’s just supporting crime.”

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.