What are illegal logging and illegal trade?

Illegal logging and illegal trade in forest products are not new – they have been going on for a very long time. Nor are illegal practices unique to the forest sector; many other products are illegally produced and traded.

There is much confusion regarding the definition and scope of illegal logging and illegal trade in forest products – they cover a wide range of activities, from the various practices of illegal logging to acts of smuggling, illegal trading, illegal timber pricing and classification, undocumented trade and illegal trade in species listed in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In view of this confusion, it is useful to decouple the terms 'illegal logging' and 'illegal trade', although it should always be remembered that illegal logging and illegal trade are related and linked.

Illegal logging

Illegal logging refers to the removal of logs in a manner that is against the provisions of relevant laws. What are these laws and in what context do they apply? For illegal logging, the laws are those of a particular country: ie national (or sub-national) laws. The context of the application of these laws is forest management or sustainable forest management (SFM). Today SFM is a principal goal of most national forestry legislations. A large number of prerequisites related to issues such as planning, harvesting, community relations, taxation and so on must be met to achieve SFM. Most would require the support of appropriate rules, regulations, procedures and laws – to regulate behaviour of all actors to ensure conformity and compliance with norms for the proper conduct of the forest sector. Collectively, these rules, regulations, procedures and laws can be called national forest laws. Logging activities should be undertaken in accordance with these national forest laws. If this is done, then the activities are considered legal; if not, they are called illegal logging.

The issue is not so much whether the national forest laws have been put in place but the extent to which these laws are actually observed and enforced. The responsibility or onus for the formulation and enforcement of national forest laws lies with the government in a country, be it the central, state or provincial government, as applicable. It is basically a national and domestic problem. Apart from formulating and enforcing appropriate national forest laws, the authorities can also take suitable measures to monitor logging activities through the keeping of records and data on felling and production, timber tracking, timber bar-coding and certification. Forest laws differ from one country to another. It is important to bear this in mind when comparing illegal logging activities between countries, since a practice deemed legal in one country may be illegal in another country, and vice versa.

The problem of illegal logging can be curbed through good forest management. The relationship between forest law enforcement and SFM is, indeed, reciprocal and mutually supportive. While contributing to SFM, best practices in forest management can facilitate effective forest law enforcement and governance as well. By adopting best practices, the forest entity lends itself to the process of self-discipline and regulation through the inculcation of positive values, attitudes and behaviour regarding forests.

Illegal trade

Illegal trade in forest products is quite different and more complex. This is because illegal trade can be domestic or international, or both, and involves not only national forest laws but also other relevant national laws and international laws, including laws on corporations, trading, banking, auditing, customs, taxes, etc. The worst-case scenario is a combination of illegal logging and illegal trade at both the domestic and international levels.

Solutions to the problem need to be found in appropriate measures to be taken at both national and international levels aimed at: tightening enforcement, control and supervision; reducing and eliminating incentives for illegal practices by raising the costs and risks of these practices; limiting and impeding access to markets for illegally traded forest products; applying third-party verification of the legality of forest products flows; and enhancing international cooperation and coordination involving organizations like ITTO working with CITES, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and Interpol.

Although international cooperation is important, the problems of illegal trade are best tackled at source in the country of origin. Hence, while efforts to address illegal trade at the international level should be enhanced, these can only act to supplement and complement the essential and appropriate measures that need to be taken at the national level to confront the problems of illegal trade at source in the country of origin.