Tougher enforcement and strict new rules have led to a dramatic drop in illegal logging, sparing woodland in Cameroon, national parks in Indonesia and rain forests in the Amazon, a British think tank says.
Worldwide, an international clampdown on unlawfully harvested timber has helped protect up to 42 million acres of forest over the past few years — roughly the same area covered by the state of Illinois, according to a report published Thursday by the London-based Chatham House.
Since 2002, the report said, total global production of illegal timber has fallen by nearly 25 percent.
"We're a quarter of the way there," said Sam Lawson, one of the report's authors. He expressed the hope that newer regulations — such as a European law passed last week that will ban the import of illegal timber by 2012 — would cut the amount of illegal logging even further.
"A lot of the action that's been taken happened recently and can't be expected to have been trickled down to the level of the forest yet," he said.
Much heads West as furniture
A big chunk of that timber is processed in China and makes its way to the West in the form of plywood and furniture. The U.S., the U.K., Japan, France, and the Netherlands spent $8.4 billion buying illegally harvested wood in 2008, the report said.
Illegal logging in the Amazon has already been cut by between 50 percent and 75 percent, with similar drops recorded in Indonesia and Cameroon, the report found.
That's good news for the fight to contain climate change, in part because forests help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It's also good news for cash-strapped governments in the developing world, who can recoup revenue lost to illegal logging, and for local people who rely on the forest for their livelihood.
"The net benefits from that are huge, in terms of the climate, in terms of poverty-reduction, and in terms of the environment generally," Lawson said.
The scale of the problem remains daunting. In 2008, some 3.5 billion cubic feet of timber was illegally harvested from Brazil, Indonesia, Cameroon, Ghana, and Malaysia. Laid end to end, the logs would circle the Earth more than 10 times over.
But new laws — like the one passed in Europe, and the amended Lacey Act, passed in the U.S. in 2008 — have criminalized the handling of illegally sourced timber. Back in producer countries, tighter enforcement has shut down rogue logging operations in places like Indonesia's national parks.
Indonesia an exception?
Some activists were quick to qualify the gains. Deddy Ratih, with leading Indonesian environmental group Walhi, said illegal logging in Indonesia was continuing at almost the same pace as in previous years — and the decline might have happened simply because there were fewer trees left to cut.
Paulo Adario, the coordinator of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign, said the global economic downturn — which has hit the timber trade quite hard — had also played a role in putting a damper on illegal logging.
Lawson acknowledged that the global recession might be part of the story.
"There is a bit of that," he said. "But the reductions that we saw began much earlier than the economic slowdown.
"Illegal timber hasn't just gone down in terms of volume, it's gone down in terms of percentage of the wood being harvested," he said.
There are still enormous challenges. While laws prohibiting the use of illegal timber into Europe and North America may have dented the export market, activists say small-scale illegal timber harvesting for local use remains largely unchallenged — particularly in Africa.
Internationally, rules against the use of illegal wood remain patchy. The report singled out Japan as a country where imports of illicitly cut timber was particularly high. And Lawson expressed the hope that developing countries would sit up and take notice of the West's efforts to fight the illegal timber trade.
"If China were to follow suit, there'd be a huge impact," he said.