We should help solve illegal logging, not be part of the problem

/ Commentary by William F. Laurance

It's tempting to think of illegal logging as an environmental crisis but it takes a serious human toll too. Just ask the wife and children of Chut Wutty, an environmental activist who was murdered last week for investigating rampant illegal logging in Cambodia. Wutty was far from alone. Criminal gangs increasingly control illegal logging, and don't hesitate to kill those who dare to oppose them.

Logs in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Logs in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

It’s tempting to think of illegal logging as an environmental crisis but it takes a serious human toll too. Just ask the wife and children of Chut Wutty, an environmental activist who was murdered last week for investigating rampant illegal logging in Cambodia.

Wutty was far from alone. Criminal gangs increasingly control illegal logging, and don’t hesitate to kill those who dare to oppose them.

In the Peruvian Amazon, a community leader alerted police to a truckload of illegal logs. Within an hour he was dead from six gunshots. The American nun Dorothy Stang, who fought to protect local communities in the Amazon from illegal loggers and land grabbers, was executed by hired killers. The legendary Brazilian conservationist Chico Mendes was also killed in cold blood.

These are but a few of the fallen. As documented in a 2012 report by the World Bank, Justice for the Forests, illegal logging is now a massive criminal enterprise, rivaling the illegal drug trade and robbing developing nations of up to $US15 billion in revenues annually.

Illegal logging in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Illegal logging in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Of the 15 top timber-producing nations in the tropics, two-thirds lose over half of their timber to illegal loggers. In Indonesia, 70-80 per cent of the timber harvest is illegal, according to Interpol and the World Bank.

It’s time to get tough with the timber thieves. The World Bank is urging authorities to follow the trail of money – tracking down illegal timber barons with the same strategies used to catch drug kingpins and human traffickers. The bank also wants law enforcers to use electronic surveillance, undercover operations and witness protection. It’s the only way, the report concludes, to combat international criminal syndicates and go after the big fish.

And it’s about time. The World Bank estimates that illegal logging promotes the destruction of tropical forest at a rate of 30 football fields a minute.

This is an enormous threat to biodiversity and local and indigenous cultures. And it causes billions of tons of greenhouse gases to be spewed into the atmosphere each year. According to the bank, if all the environmental and social costs are tallied along with the economic losses, the actual cost of illegal logging is around $US60 billion per year – a whopping figure. It’s a problem that affects us all. As awareness of the crisis grows, industrial nations – which ultimately consume much of the world’s illicit timber as products such as flooring, furniture and plywood – are taking measures to combat illegal timber imports.

These measures include the European Union’s Timber Action Plan and new provisions to the Lacey Act in the United States, which are putting teeth into measures designed to fight illegal imports. Under the US law the worst offenders can face up to five years in jail. In Australia, lawmakers have been debating a similar law for several years.

In February I briefed senators on the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2011, which would help staunch the flood of illegal timber and wood products coming from places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and China.

Unfortunately, the Liberal-National Coalition, which originally supported the bill because it would help level the playing field for domestic timber producers, has done an about-face and is now opposing the bill.

Logging truck in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Logging truck in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Insidiously, the conservatives have diverted the bill to a Joint Parliamentary Committee, even though there have already been two parliamentary Inquiries in the past year on this exact policy. As a result, the bill is stalled and might be derailed.

This is bad news for anyone who cares about the environment and legal commerce. In addition to the Coalition and its misguided policies, blame former Australian trade ambassador Alan Oxley, who has lobbied hard against the bill. Oxley is now a well-heeled lobbyist funded by some of the world’s biggest timber and oil palm corporations, mostly from Asia. Last year I debated Oxley at the Australian National University, in a forum on trade and forest conservation in the Asia-Pacific. It was not a friendly encounter. Then, as now, Oxley argued that an illegal logging bill would be ”anti-free-trade” and ”green protectionism”.

Now Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the Coalition, says we shouldn’t risk upsetting Indonesia, one of the biggest sources of illegal timber imports into Australia. But these arguments are bunk. Indonesian President Yudhoyono is trying desperately to fight illegal logging, which is robbing his country of billions of dollars annually. And the bill before Parliament won’t harm legitimate traders and timber producers – just those profiting from illegal logging.

If the illegal logging bill falters, the Coalition will have a lot to answer for – because Australia should be part of the solution to illegal logging, not part of the problem.

Dithering while the forests fall empowers the criminals who are plundering, bribing and even killing to enrich themselves with the profits from illegal logging. The Coalition needs to get out of the way so Australia can help fight this scourge.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This op-ed originally appeared May 11, 2012 in the Canberra Times as As we dither, forests fall and criminals plunder and kill. It has been posted here with the permission of the author and the Canberra Times.

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