Alison Hoare
Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

The issue of illegal logging and its related trade remains a huge global problem*. Progress is being made, but this needs to happen at a much faster rate given the pressure that is being put on forests from the rising demand for natural resources, in particular, for agricultural commodities. 

The good news

Global efforts to tackle the issue of illegal logging are having an impact. Research suggests that there may have been some improvements in levels of illegal logging in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo in recent years, as a result of the negotiation of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). Six such agreements, which are a key element of the EU's FLEGT Action Plan, have been concluded to date and three more countries have started formal negotiations with the EU this year – Cote d'Ivoire, Honduras and Thailand. 

Furthermore, the EU Timber Regulation, which came into force just four months ago, is already changing practices in the timber industry. Timber producers are taking action to assure the legality of their timber (for example in Indonesia), while European buyers are implementing better supply chain controls so that they can be sure of the legality of timber products. China is a crucial player, as both a hub of processing activities and a major consumer of timber. One potential solution is the Chinese Timber Legality Verification Scheme, which is still being piloted, and the country is also engaged in a number of bilateral cooperation efforts, including with Australia, Japan and Indonesia.  

New technologies are also being deployed to help expand the availability of information and provide a means by which stakeholders are able to share their knowledge. Mobile phone technology is enabling forest-based communities to monitor and report on forest activities, while GIS and mapping is enabling sharing of information on forest extraction activities. These activities remain at pilot level, but there is significant potential for scaling up and they could become powerful tools to help improve monitoring and to enable the engagement of citizens in the sector. 

Huge challenges

These positive stories are somewhat tempered by reports of the continuing scale of the problem. In Papua New Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo illegal practices are still rife. These include the illegal allocation of logging permits, over-harvesting and non-payment of taxes. Preliminary findings from Chatham House’s research into illegal logging in these three countries suggest that the vast majority of timber production in recent years has been illegal. 

Looking at a number of timber importing countries - South Korea, India and Thailand - our research found that although these countries are importing high levels of illegal timber, there has been little government recognition of the issue and little action to date. 

Another critical issue is the threat to forests from other sectors. The demand for land, particularly for agriculture, has increased dramatically in recent years and is set to continue. Commercial agriculture is now the main cause of deforestation in the tropics and it is estimated that over half of the tropical timber being traded comes from forest conversion for commercial agriculture. 

In many parts of the world, this change in land-use is unplanned or illegal, and so, much of the timber produced from this land conversion is also illegal. This phenomenon is undermining efforts to establish sound land-use management, which is key if countries are to be able to establish a sustainable forest sector and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.  

A need for a broader vision

Given the growing pressure on forests from other sectors, efforts to ensure that the world's forests are maintained cannot remain focused within the 'forestry world' and a broader strategy is required. 

An important means to help achieve this is through improving linkages between forestry and the broader international development agenda. At last year’s Rio+20 conference, the important role of forests for sustainable development was once again highlighted. The outcome document, 'The Future We Want', highlights the need for increased efforts to strengthen forest governance, slow deforestation and forest degradation and to integrate sustainable forest management into the mainstream of economic policy. There are two potential avenues through which this can be implemented. Firstly, through countries' efforts to establish green economies, and secondly, through the yet to be agreed Sustainable Development Goals. 

Once the Goals are agreed, indicators will then have to be identified by which they can be measured. Initiatives in the forest sector could be used to define indicators for those Goals that relate to natural resources and forests. Possibilities include the establishment of national licensing systems to guarantee legality, the existence and implementation of public procurement policies, information transparency requirements for governments, and the implementation of due diligence systems by companies. These would not only provide useful measures of progress, but their use as targets would also help to encourage further progress, providing added impetus to efforts to improve legality and sustainability within the forest sector. 

* This was discussed at Chatham House's 22nd Illegal Logging Stakeholder Update Meeting, held on 8-9 July.

More resources can be found on the Illegal Logging website.