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Fight illegal logging by going after criminal masterminds

Illegally logged tree in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Illegally logged tree in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Illegal logging has never been a high priority for criminal investigators, but a new report by the World Bank says it should be. Worldwide, the illegal logging epidemic is decimating natural resources, imperiling biodiversity, emitting carbon, and undercutting the livelihoods of local and indigenous people. But the lucrative funds from these ill-gotten gains is just as problematic: top organized criminals rake in $10-15 billion annually from illegal logging and largely use the funds to drive corruption.

“We need to fight organized crime in illegal logging the way we go after gangsters selling drugs or racketeering,” said Jean Pesme, Manager of the World Bank Financial Market Integrity team, that drew up the report entitled Justice for Forests: Improving Criminal Justice Efforts to Combat Illegal Logging.

According to the World Bank, illegal logging drives deforestation of a football-field sized forest every two seconds. The criminal practice is so rife in some countries that 90 percent of their deforestation is due to illegal logging; such figures means many forest-rich, but economically poor nations, lose both their natural resources and any chance to gain income through taxation from unscrupulous logging.

Rainforest timber in a port in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

To date, illegal logging has been largely combated with preventative measures, but the report says these alone have failed to stem the tide. Instead, preventative measures must be complemented with a new push to investigate, prosecute, and convict top level criminals and enablers.

“Large-scale illegal [logging] operations are carried out by sophisticated criminal networks, and law enforcement actions need to be focused on the ‘masterminds’ behind these networks—and the high level corrupt officials who enable and protect them,” according to the report, which argues that instead of focusing solely on those people actually cutting the trees— many of which are compelled by poverty—one should follow the money trail up.

Recommendations for law officials include developing a domestic criminal justice strategy on illegal logging, improving cooperation between nations, working with the privates sector and NGOs, and linking criminal justice improvements as a part of development packages. Strategies such as surveillance, witness protection, and undercover operations should be employed by law officials on the ground. In addition, one of the best ways to catch high-level criminals is to focus on money laundering.

“The criminal justice system should form an integral part of any balanced and organized strategy for fighting forest crime,” the report reads.

The report also compliments the U.S. for its 2008 bipartisan amendment to the Lacey Act, which combats illegal logging abroad by banning the importation of illegally logged wood products into the country.

“Other countries should pass similar domestic legislation, criminalizing the importation of illegal timber and plugging an important gap in international law,” the report reads.

The Lacey Act, however, has recently come under fire from Tea Party groups and anti-regulatory politicians in the U.S. due to an investigation of instrument company Gibson Guitars, which may have violated the act by allegedly importing illegally logged wood products from Madagascar and unmilled wood from India. Still, the Lacey Act has been pointed to as one important factor behind a recent dip of illegal logging worldwide.

The EU is currently considering legislation similar to the U.S. Lacey Act.

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