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Why helping civil society investigate illegal timber is about much more than protecting forests and forest peoples [commentary]

  • The Timber Investigation Center is a new online resource for activists and communities on how to monitor illegal logging, track wood through supply chains and submit evidence to authorities.
  • Earthsight, which launched the Timber Investigation Center, is offering to support organizations to carry out relevant investigations and submit evidence, and seeking submissions (a form is available at
  • This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the author.

My organization recently published a guidebook and online resource ( for activists and communities on how to investigate illegal logging and track flows of illegal wood, particularly those destined for the U.S. and EU. We are also offering free help and advice to organizations working to build such cases. Why are we doing this?

The immediate answer is that we believe evidence collected by such organizations will help tackle illegal logging, illegal deforestation and associated land-grabs, and thereby prevent the catastrophic impacts of these activities. But it isn’t only about that. We are also doing it because we believe strongly that the illegal timber laws which now exist in the U.S. and EU are extraordinary, and their importance goes far beyond the issues of timber or even of forests. These laws are pioneering a uniquely powerful approach to addressing the role of rich consuming countries in driving environmental and human rights violations overseas through their purchases. This approach contains important lessons for trade in other products, from deforestation commodities like palm oil and beef, to conflict resources like diamonds and oil, even to clothes made with slave labor. But if it is to be replicated, first we have to make it work.

How the trade in illegal wood is being tackled

In many of the world’s largest timber producing countries, the majority of the trees being felled are cut illegally. In 2010 it was estimated (pdf) that the illegal logs being produced each year, if laid end-to-end, would stretch 10 times around the Earth. Trees are felled in national parks or without the permission of local customary landowners. Companies commonly obtain rights to harvest timber illegally through corruption or fraud, and flout the controls meant to minimize the impact on the environment. Theft of national assets, widespread tax evasion and smuggling deprive many of the world’s poorest states of much-needed revenues, and the money goes instead to fuel corruption and even armed conflict. Forests are destroyed, and along with them the wildlife and the resources on which millions of livelihoods depend. The climate-changing emissions caused by illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture are as great as those produced by all the cars, trucks and planes in Europe.

An illegal logging camp in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay
An illegal logging camp in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The largest consumers of illegally-sourced wood are the U.S., EU, Japan and China. Recognizing their responsibility for driving illegal logging through their imports, in recent years both the U.S. (through amendments to the Lacey Act) and the EU (through the EU Timber Regulation, or EUTR) have enacted laws which make it an offense for companies to import wood which was illegally sourced in the country of origin. These prohibitions are supported by additional requirements for companies to understand their supply chains. In the U.S., importers must submit declarations of the species and country of harvest; in the EU, they must implement systems of due diligence to minimize the risk of accepting illegal wood. Both laws are backed by significant penalties, including jail time for the worst offenders.

In the EU, this new law is supported by parallel legislation enabling voluntary bilateral agreements with timber producing countries. The EU is negotiating or implementing such agreements with 15 countries, including most of the largest wood exporters in the tropics. The principal purpose of these agreements is to establish licensing systems for legal wood, but in reality they are having a much broader beneficial effect.

An emergent canopy tree felled for timber in East Africa. The great height of these canopy trees creates a large vertical space beneath which smaller trees and plants can grow, promoting extraordinary biodiversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
An emergent canopy tree felled for timber in East Africa. The great height of these canopy trees creates a large vertical space beneath which smaller trees and plants can grow, promoting extraordinary biodiversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

These laws are already having a positive impact. Imports of illegal wood into the U.S., for example, are estimated (pdf) to have dropped by between 32 and 44 percent since the Lacey amendments took effect in 2008. During covert investigations, traders have confirmed to us that European buyers are taking due diligence seriously, demanding meaningful proof of legality and dropping suppliers when they cannot provide it. The EU’s nascent bilateral agreements with timber producing countries are giving civil society an increased role in decisionmaking on forestry, improving national legislation, and increasing transparency. These are all vital ingredients needed to tackle illegal logging at source, while also having positive impacts that extend far beyond forests.

The lessons for other commodities and consumer goods

Around 70 percent of all recent tropical deforestation is estimated to be due to conversion of forest lands for commercial agriculture. Most of this deforestation is large-scale industrial clearance for soy, palm oil and monoculture tree plantations, and vast cattle ranches. In most cases the majority of the production is for export. The importance of commercial agriculture as a driver of deforestation is now well understood. What is less well understood is that the majority of this is illegal. In 2014, I produced a major study which estimated that between 57 and 87 percent of this deforestation has been illegal. The same study found that illegal deforestation linked to agro-commodity imports generates more emissions than all but five of the world’s countries. Forced to recognize their role in driving deforestation, numerous large companies involved in producing, trading or consuming deforestation commodities like palm oil have in recent years made voluntary commitments to avoid purchasing goods produced on deforested land. Meanwhile, schemes have been set up for key commodities which allow companies to obtain independent “certification” that their products have been produced legally and sustainably.

Roads divide a natural forest (left), oil palm plantation (bottom right) and timber plantation (top right) in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Roads divide a natural forest, left, an oil palm plantation, bottom right, and a timber plantation in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

While such steps are to be applauded, there are many compelling reasons why a voluntary approach alone will not be effective, even in preventing trade in commodities produced on land illegally cleared of forests. The standards themselves do not capture key types of illegality, such as the corrupt or illegal allocation of licenses. Systems for monitoring implementation are poor or nonexistent, and often hampered by a lack of transparency. But most importantly, the voluntary nature of these efforts means that they will never encompass all of production and trade. There will always be bad actors, able to undercut the more conscientious ones on price. Good companies doing the right thing in future also won’t help address the underlying governance problems which are allowing rampant illegality to occur. Those working on timber already learned these lessons, and moved from a voluntary to a regulatory approach.

An effective response to the scourge of illegal conversion of forests for agro-commodities must learn from efforts on timber, and involve regulatory action, including by governments of key consumer countries.

Many other commodities being consumed in rich countries are known to drive negative environmental and human rights impacts in developing countries. The products range from diamonds and precious metals to clothing. The issues to which they are connected range from armed conflict to slave labor. As with timber and forest-risk commodities, in each case campaigners have pushed for action. There have been voluntary commitments by individual companies, “certification” schemes established, and in some cases requirements have even been put into law by consumer country governments. But none of these initiatives comes close to the ambition of the laws being implemented in the EU and U.S. on illegal timber. Partly for this reason, they have all met with rather limited success.

None of the relevant voluntary measures encompass all of the trade, or even the majority, and all suffer from limited transparency, insufficient independent oversight and poor implementation. Of the laws, most apply only to importers, not to secondary traders and retailers, as Lacey does for wood. Some only apply to the largest importers. Few apply to a broad range of primary and secondary products, as both Lacey and EUTR do. None of these laws actually make it an offense to trade in the goods concerned. None have associated laws allowing for bilateral efforts whereby the countries will help address the problems at source. None include criminal penalties.

For example, pressure from campaigning organizations to tackle the trade in conflict diamonds led to the Kimberley Process, an international certification scheme backed by most major producer and importing countries. Though underpinned by regulation, Kimberley left the crucial process of determining whether diamonds were “conflict-free” in the hands of the industry and producer country governments. Hailed as a success story when it was launched in 2003, by 2011 it had been largely discredited, dismissed by campaigners as “a cynical corporate accreditation scheme.” Kimberley also only ever addressed rough diamonds, not finished stones.

In 2008, scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society boosted Republic of the Congo population estimates for the Critically Endangered western lowland lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) to around 125,000 individuals. These animals and their habitat could be seriously threatened by poorly regulated logging operations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A critically endangered western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in Republic of Congo. These animals and their habitat could be seriously threatened by poorly regulated logging operations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

A different approach has been pursued more recently with other conflict minerals. In Democratic Republic of Congo, decades of horrific and violent conflict have been underwritten through a multimillion dollar trade in gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten. In 2010, the U.S. passed a law requiring U.S. companies involved in manufacturing or commissioning the manufacture of products which contain these minerals to disclose information about any consumption of such minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo or a neighboring country, and report on what due diligence measures they had taken to try to ensure any such purchases were not contributing to the violent conflict there. The EU is currently finalizing a similar law. Alongside these laws, there has been a response from the private sector. Individual companies have made high-profile promises. Various industry-led certification schemes (such as the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative) have been set up.

Such initiatives also have severe limitations. The certification schemes and company policies are voluntary, so cannot be enforced or expected to capture the entire market. The U.S. law is restricted to only specific source countries, as the EU law may also be when it is passed. The EU version does not encompass smaller importers or any companies importing secondary products such as electronics and jewellery which contain the relevant metals. Neither the U.S. or EU laws impose any actual penalty for having imported minerals which contributed to conflict. Neither requires any bilateral effort with source countries to try to address the problem at source.

An estimated $150 billion of illegal profits are made each year through modern forms of slavery, much of it linked to production of goods for export. In the UK, a law was recently passed which requires companies to report annually on the efforts they have taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place anywhere in their supply chains. This is of particular relevance for the clothing sector. While it has been described by some as a “game-changer,” the new law suffers from many of the same limitations as those on conflict minerals. It applies only to the largest companies. There are no penalties for companies which fail to carry out sufficient due diligence, or import goods made using slave labor. Parallel voluntary efforts and promises by individual companies (such as major clothing retailers) have the same drawbacks they always have.

Why the role of civil society is important

The actions taken by the EU and U.S. on illegal timber are pioneering, and are already having positive impacts, but they are not yet complete. There have been relatively few significant enforcement actions under the EUTR or Lacey Act, and the evidence suggests that illegally sourced wood continues to reach these markets. Many of the bilateral agreements the EU is working on with source countries have yet to be signed or are proving painfully slow to implement. Other major markets such as China and Japan have yet to implement equally ambitious laws. If we are to successfully advocate for a similar approach to be pursued for other commodities and issues, we must first finish the job on timber. We must make sure the laws and bilateral agreements are fully implemented and enforced. As well as showing that such laws can achieve their goals, this will also demonstrate that they can clean up supply chains without unbearable costs on industry, and without restricting the rights and capacity of poor countries to pursue economic development.

An illegal logging operation in the vicinity of a REDD+ pilot project in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
An illegal logging operation in the vicinity of a REDD+ pilot project in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Finishing that job will require renewed and redoubled effort from producer country governments, consumer country governments, international donors and the private sector. But the role of civil society is particularly crucial. These laws only emerged in the first place because of the stream of robust, damning evidence brought to light by activists investigating illegal logging and tracing the wood to market. It is essential that NGOs, individual activists and affected communities continue to provide a steady stream of robust evidence, and use this evidence to pressure governments.

That is where our small contribution comes in. By giving tools, advice and direct assistance to activists and communities, we hope to increase the flow of relevant evidence and ensure it is used to best effect. As well as helping those already involved in relevant work, we also aim to persuade others to join them, by demystifying the techniques involved and by explaining the value of relevant information, including to those communities most badly affected.

We also want to reach out to a broader audience, including those working on other issues entirely. Many of the tools and techniques we outline in the guidebook are of help or interest to those investigating other things. This includes those investigating land grabbing, illegal mining, or anyone seeking to trace illegally or unethically sourced products through supply chains, from fish to clothing.

To help us reach as broad an audience as possible, we are asking everyone to spread the word.  

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