How organized crime groups are destroying the rain forests

October 2, 2012

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.


Citizens in Mexico organize militias to defend against woodcutting bandits. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images)

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.

When all else fails, there's always violence and murder. My colleagues Anne-Marie O'Connor and William Booth recently wrote about the western mountains of Michoacan in Mexico, where well-established syndicates are taking chainsaws to forests: "In April, as the gangs began to fell the massive tropical pines that surround the town’s water sources and springs, citizens confronted the outsiders, seizing 10 logging trucks piled high with timber. A gunman shot one of the townspeople in the head."

The logging trade remains enormously profitable — the World Bank estimates that crime groups now rake in $11 billion each year from illegal timber, nearly as much as the $13 billion haul from drug production.

So can it be stopped? The U.N./Interpol report notes that too many tropical nations still focus solely on providing armed security to national parks rather than investigating the more complex practices of the logging racket, such as bribes or money laundering. Countries still haven't woken up to "the organized transnational nature of the criminal groups involved."

And they need to start, the report urges. China is set to double its wood consumption by 2020. Global demand for timber products is growing massively. Wealthy nations are now devoting billions of dollars to programs like REDD+ that aim to reduce tropical deforestation and ensure that the world's forests are harvested in a sustainable manner — as they are in Europe and the United States (see map below). Yet without addressing illegal logging, those efforts are likely to fail. 

Further reading:

— The mystery of tropical deforestation, in two maps.

— A look at the palm-oil trade in Indonesia, which is also driving deforestation.

— The Amazon forest threat is now greater outside Brazil.

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Sarah Kliff · October 2, 2012