Investigations by Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) member and partner organizations in 1995-96 have uncovered ample evidence of continuing illegality in logging and timber trade in Brazil, Cameroon, Ghana and Paraguay. Participating organizations were the FoEI - Amazonia Programme (FoEI-AP, in Brazil), Enviro-Protect (in Cameroon), Friends of the Earth Ghana and Sobrevivencia (FoE Paraguay).
According to Rob Glastra, project co-ordinator of the FoEI Secretariat :
"The project demonstrates once more that illegal logging is a grave threat to the development of sustainable forest management, which is doomed to fail if laws and other regulatory mechanisms are not effectively implemented and respected. Rampant illegality also creates unfair competitive disadvantages to timber companies willing to respect laws and pay taxes, let alone to those wishing to having their products certified as coming from sustainably managed forests."
Country cases were selected because of priority to the participating organizations. FoEI recognizes that such practices do occur in many other countries, on all continents. Similar activities in earlier years have been documented and published in the FoE reports Illegal. An Independent Investigation on Illegal Practices in Mahogany Logging and Trade in the Brazilian Amazon (1994) and Plunder in Ghana's Rainforest for Illegal Profit (1992).
The case study in Brazil showed that timber concessions, mostly for the extraction of mahogany, seem to serve as an instrument to legalize timber coming from illegal sources, including Indian reserves and other protected areas. Partly as a result of NGO pressure and press coverage, the President suspended the granting of new mahogany and virola concessions in the Amazon for two years, and ordered an unprecedented audit of concession management plans. This audit revealed that at least 71% of these plans were illegal.
Roberto Smeraldi, the FoEI-AP coordinator in Brazil, said:
"In less than three decades, the Amazon region will become the principal world center for the production of tropical timber. The FoEI study shows not only that timber production is not managed on the basis of sustained yield, but that the whole timber sector is operating outside or against the law. On top of that, percentages of paid fines per Brazilian state vary in range from less than 1% to a mere 17%".
Smeraldi also cautions against the recent, almost anonymous establishment of East Asian timber companies, many of which have extremely negative environmental and social records.
The Ghana study estimated that about one-third of the logs are harvested illegally, with timber volumes still increasing. Illegal chainsaw operations are the main factor, often backed by people with political connections, and by timber processing companies. Only 18% of all chainsaws in the country are registered. Foreign exchange losses as a result of illegal logging are estimated at over US$ 600,000 each month. If wood prices remain low and exploitation continues as in recent years, the twelve species most in demand will become extinct by 2006.
The replacement of traditional by 'modern' land tenure systems and the fact that the benefits from commercial forestry hardly reach the local population have seriously undermined the forest stewardship role that these communities have traditionally played.
Theo Anderson, Director of FoE Ghana, said:
"The significant growth of the forestry sector's contribution to Ghana's GDP has been achieved by overcutting the forest at unsustainable rates, with high wastage, wood priced below its real value, and forest-dependent communities suffering the social and economic costs".
The project in Paraguay involved: a one million hectare illegal colonization scheme pushed by top government officials in the Alto Paraguay area, with land speculation involving members of the presidential family, violations of indigenous land rights and illegal logging. All of this took place within the context of the Hidrovia industrial waterway scheme, a megaproject involving five countries and two river systems. In another case, further south, illegal logging and cross-border log trafficking to Brazil were exposed. Arrest warrants were issued to some high officials, and a parliamentary hearing was held on the involvement of the Minister of Agriculture and other government officials.
Elias Diaz Pena, one of FoE Paraguay's project co-ordinators said :
"At the current rate of illegal log trafficking from Paraguay to Brazil, there will be no commercial wood left in Paraguay in about five years. This traffic is also linked to the smuggling of endangered animals, stolen automobiles and drug traffic".
The project in Cameroon concluded that contradictory and sometimes impracticable legislation plus totally inadequate enforcement resources and wide-spread corruption were the main reasons for thriving illegal practices in the timber sector. Cameroon's dramatic economic crisis since the late 1980s and harsh economic adjustment schemes pushed by international aid agencies and financial institutions are essential underlying factors.
Resentment among the local population against logging companies in the main timber producing province in the south-east is growing. They consider the granting of concessions by the state as a handing over of their ancestral lands to foreign interests, without any meaningful compensation or benefits. An alarming side-effect of logging is the depletion of the region's unique animal diversity as a result of large-scale poaching and bushmeat trade, in which logging employees and truck drivers play a crucial role.
The case studies have demonstrated the importance of continuous independent monitoring of logging and the timber trade, the implementation of regulatory mechanisms, and of the potential for successful lobbying of policy and decision makers. There is an obvious role to play here for NGOs, who can form alliances with well-meaning officials and government departments, and with involved local communities that are committed to sustainable forest use alternatives.
An appeal is made to the respective governments, to international development aid and investment agencies, and to timber traders and industry to use the results of the project for policy reforms, better laws and regulations, and action against those involved in illegal practices.
FoEI urges the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) to give more priority to the issue of widespread illegality in the timber sector in developing countries and countries with economies in transition : not with generally phrased statements in its final report, but in the form of action-oriented recommendations to the coming session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.
These recommendations should focus on :
* a global assessment, within one year, of the extent of the illegal international trade in timber and other forest products;
* international assistance to governments in improving national legislation, strengthening enforcement agencies and involving NGOs and local communities in the prevention and monitoring of illegal logging.
* a critical review of existing international instruments applying to the trade in forest products; whether reforms of such instruments are an effective answer to the problem should take priority over the question of whether they restrict the freedom of trade;
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Last updated: 26 Dec 2001