How organized crime groups are destroying the rain forests

The Washington Post reports: The phrase “organized crime” typically conjures up images of drug trafficking or stolen-car rings. But it turns out that the illegal logging trade is just as lucrative — and far more destructive. Between 50 to 90 percent of forestry in tropical areas is now controlled by criminal groups, according to a new report (pdf) from the United Nations and Interpol.

Across the globe, deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for one-fifth of humanity’s emissions. Farming and logging both play big roles. What makes this area so difficult to regulate, however, is that a great deal of logging simply takes place illegally — much of it in tropical areas such as the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia. The U.N. estimates that illicit logging is now worth between $30 billion to $100 billion, or up to 30 percent of the global wood trade.

These rogue lumberjacks are growing more sophisticated, evading the efforts of countries to crack down. For instance, in the mid-2000s, it appeared as if illegal logging was on the wane in countries such as Indonesia, thanks to stepped-up law enforcement. But the numbers were deceptive. Illicit logging was either migrating to other tropical nations — such as Papua New Guinea or Myanamar — or simply eluding detection.

Corruption helps. A well-placed bribe can help groups obtain logging permits illegally, or cut beyond what their permits allow. Crime syndicates can mask their activities by pretending they’re engaged in plantation development or road construction. Chaotic conflict zones, like in the Congo, are ripe for exploitation. And, unlike ivory or cocaine, it’s easy to ship timber without getting caught — simply bundle up illegal logs with legal ones. [Continue reading...]

The UN/Interpol report states: In the last five years, illegal logging has moved from direct illegal logging to more advanced methods of concealment and timber laundering. In this report more than 30 ways of conducting illegal logging, laundering, selling and trading illegal logs are described. Primary methods include falsification of logging permits, bribes to obtain logging permits (in some instances noted as US$ 20–50,000 per permit), logging beyond concessions, hacking government websites to obtain transport permits for higher volumes or transport, laundering illegal timber by establishing roads, ranches, palm oil or forest plantations and mixing with legal timber during transport or in mills.

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and not necessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging.

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