The two ends of a same stick

Illegal logging is not only about cutting trees

Photo by Mildly Useful on Unsplash

There are many reasons why someone would like to cut the forest illegally. Farmers may want to expand their field to grow more crop and have more to eat or sell on the local market, large agrobusiness may want to grow one crop on a large scale to make a lot of money, timber traders may want to cut precious tropical wood to sell it at a very high price.

All these people together are responsible for the loss of the tropical forest. In the recent years, the global community realized the importance of conserving forests and therefore preventing illegal logging. To solve this problem, some countries decided to strengthen the legislation on the trade of illegal timber.

In Europe, the USA and Australia which are developed countries often defined as “consumers”, laws were created to forbid the input of illegal timber on the respective timber market of these countries. Each country made sure that the timber entering their market was clean and green. This way, they expected to discourage illegal loggers who would not find buyers for their timber.

More than an environmental issue, illegal logging in these countries was also considered as an unfair competitive advantage because tropical illegal timber could be sold at a cheaper price than legal timber from temperate forests. The three legislative instruments developed by these large timber importers, respectively the European Timber Regulation, the Lacey Act, and the Illegal Prohibition Act, forbade timber companies to cheat the market by introducing cheap illegal timber.

These three countries also considered the causes of illegal logging were the lack regulation and enforcement in producing countries. They pointed at the incapacity of poor tropical countries to regulate illegal logging.

Consuming countries put the responsibility onto producing countries and therefore did not feel in charge of finding solutions to halt illegal logging. However, the European Union developed a mechanism to assist tropical countries in improving their timber regulation. The Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade, also called FLEGT, is a law encouraging tropical countries willing to export to Europe to develop a timber legality system to ensure that the timber put on the European market is legal.

In the south, tropical countries, like Vietnam, and Indonesia, were pragmatic and complied with the desire of the international community to strengthen timber legality and reduce deforestation. This way, these tropical countries maintained a good image and secured a market for their legal timber. The legality verification program developed by rich consuming countries was also viewed by tropical countries as a green protectionism and a way to reduce developing countries competitivity on the international timber market.

In these countries, the negative effects of illegal logging on local communities and biodiversity are well known. Moreover, illegal logging is perceived as a corruption problem where high-ranking people make money at the expense of tropical forests. The invocated solution are usually more resources for patrols and stronger government support to halt illegal logging. Timber trade industries also call for a stronger regulation to stop illegal logging as trees felled for agricultural expansion are often burnt on the spot. Such behaviour not only threaten population of valuable trees but also waste precious timber resources. Producer countries focus more on national issues like depletion of natural resources, rights of indigenous people, standardization of policies. These countries do not have a global vision but rather focus on themselves.

Defining a country as consumer or producer is simplifying the problem, in reality, one country both consumes and produces timber products. On the international market it is common that timber moves back and forth from a “consumer” country. For example European oak is sent to Vietnam to be transformed into furniture and then sent back to Europe. In other cases, timber can go through various countries before being consumed by a customer.

Timber legality came from various interests spanning from the environmental conservation, the market competitivity, and the revitalization of the timber industry. It is interesting to see how all these groups of interests commonly agreed to strengthen timber legality and use it to reach their own goals. Even with different views and motivation, they worked together to build a more sustainable timber industry.