Forests cover about a third of Earth's land area and contain about 70% of the carbon found in living things. They are one of the keys to climate change, especially tropical forests, which also harbor 95% of the planet's terrestrial biodiversity and 40% of terrestrial carbon, and are responsible for at least one-third of the annual exchange of carbon dioxide between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Today deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 20% of global atmospheric carbon emissions, and the bulk of that comes from tropical countries.
Protecting forests, especially tropical forests, is one of the most cost-effective ways there is to reduce emissions as well as preserve biodiversity. Yet globalization has accelerated the alarming rate at which we have been losing forests worldwide, including sensitive tropical forests in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Agriculture (especially soy, oil palm, cattle, bio-fuels, and fast growing, short rotation plantation timber for pulp/paper) is the leading cause of deforestation. But illegal logging is probably the most pernicious and visible cause of forest degradation, which is defined as the reduction of tree biomass over time through over-extraction, poor management and/or illegal harvesting of valuable timber. Degradation accounts for roughly 20% of carbon emissions from tropical forests, so illegal logging is a significant contributor to global warming, in addition to the other forms environmental damage it causes, from habitat loss to erosion and flooding. It has been implicated, for example, in the severity of the floods in Pakistan.
It's also big business. Illegally harvested timber represents 20 to 40 percent of global production of industrial wood (460 million to 850 million cubic yards) according to the UN. Most illegal logging occurs in particularly vulnerable regions such as the Amazon Basin, central Africa, southeast Asia and Russia, according to the EU. From producer countries, it may pass through downstream manufacturers before eventually making its way to consumer countries -- that is, into the hands unwitting shoppers like you and me. Cheap wood products whose wood comes from inscrutable, unverified sources may seem like a bargain to us individually, yet they come with hidden costs to all of us, including accelerated climate change, loss of habitat and biodiversity and the loss of sustainable livelihoods which depend on intact forests.
Organizations like mine have been fighting forest loss since the awareness broke in the 1980s of the crisis in the Amazon rainforests. But now there is evidence that the fight is starting to go our way, and the tide is turning. A new study by the UK think tank Chatham House shows that over the past decade, the efforts of governments, NGOs and the private sector around the world have actually cut global illegal logging by 25%, including whopping 50-75% drops in the Brazilian Amazon, Cameroon and Indonesia. Imports of illegally sourced wood to the seven wood consumer and wood processing countries studied are now down 30 percent from their peak in 2004. As a result 42 million acres of forest over the past few years -- roughly the same land area as the state of Illinois - and at least 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions have been saved.
These dramatic gains, and the even bigger ones we must achieve in the near future, are due to a couple of factors. One important one, though by no means the only one, is government interdiction - tougher laws and tougher enforcement.
In 2008, the United States passed the Lacey Act, making it the first country to adopt a criminally enforceable ban on all trade in illegally sourced plants and plant products including furniture, paper and lumber. The law requires importers to indicate origin of wood products, and to pay stiff penalties if they can't or won't, and even risk jail time if they knowingly import illegal wood.
This summer, the European Parliament followed suit and voted for a similar ban on the import and sale of illegally harvested timber. It may seem surprising, but it is not currently illegal to sell wood or wood products in the EU that was cut down illegally in the country of origin. The new ban will change that. The European Council still has to formally approve it, individual EU states will set the penalties, and the ban won't actually go into effect until 2012. But together with the US Lacey Act the EU ban will soon close big loopholes that have been allowing illegal timber into consumer markets. They have the potential to significantly reduce the volume of illegal wood traded and imported into consumer countries, and to reduce the negative impacts of illegal logging on producer countries, which include corruption, poverty, unsustainable use of resources, loss of sustainable livelihoods, and lasting damage to their economies as well as to their environments.
The producer countries are precisely those developing countries whose economies and ecologies are most vulnerable and most damaged by illegal logging. That's why it's so important that the changes in the EU and the US are coinciding with a new trend towards further tightening of laws and enforcement in producer countries. For example, Brazil recently announced current Amazon deforestation has fallen 20% over last year's rate, and is only about a fifth of the 2004 rate. The Brazilian government attributes this partly to declining commodity prices, but also to much tougher enforcement, including new satellite photography technology that allows them to spot illegal logging even in cloudy weather. In the wake of the EU illegal logging ban, Liberia just agreed to interdict exports of illegal lumber to any EU member country, setting up a new system to monitor logging and downstream milling and manufacturing of its timber.
So the recent upturn in government interdiction and enforcement is an important factor in gains against illegal logging over the past decade. But there are also other important factors to consider. Interdiction has not done it alone and will not be enough in the future. We have learned by experience in the Amazon and elsewhere that simply outlawing logging by government fiat ultimately won't be enough to protect the world's forests - too many people (a billion) rely on extracting forest resources for their livelihoods, and too little of the world's forests can be effectively policed by governments anyway. Protecting them reliably will require not only big sticks, but big carrots as well - ramped up positive incentives for managing forests properly that are at least as powerful as ramped up laws and enforcement to deter abuse. The carrots are explained in Part 2 of this blog.