Illegal Logging - A Potentially Potent Environmental Crime

12th May 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Illegal logging in its simplest term is the breaking of national laws on harvesting, processing and transporting timber and /or wood products. This practice is growing and deepening in the Eastern Africa region, especially around watershed areas what are popularly known as "water towers". By logging in these fragile watershed ecosystems and also in protected areas (such as national parks and game reserves) or over allowed quotas; by processing the logs without bothering to seek for a license and by exporting the processed wood products without paying government duties, private companies may be able to generate much greater profits for themselves than by behaving legally.
The extend of illegal logging in the East Africa region is so large and law enforcement is so poor, that the chances of detection and punishment may be very small. Subsequently, the incentives to operate illegally are correspondingly large. By some estimates from conservationists, it is reported that most of the logging companies in the Eastern Africa region source half of the logs they need for their requirements illegally.
The impacts of illegal logging activities are multiple. When we consider the environmental impact, we note that illegal logging depletes forests, destroys wildlife habitats. In the mountainous ecosystems (water towers) of Eastern Africa region, illegal logging is threatening the survival of wildlife such as the Colobus monkeys, and also the threatened endemic duikers of Eastern Africa. From the climate related impacts, in reducing forest cover, illegal logging impairs the ability of landscapes to absorb carbon emissions. This is a matter of growing importance, as we know, in the context of attempts to limit climate change.
It is common knowledge that the destruction of forest cover can often have knock-on effects. Recent flash floods and landslides in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania this year for example killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. The governments in these countries blamed illegal logging, which had denuded the landscapes.
Although not quantified, it is obvious that illegal logging leads to loss of governments revenues; future generations will suffer even more because illegal loggings are clearly unsustainable, destroying valuable sources of employment and export revenue for the future.
From the social perspective, illegal logging undermines respect for the rule of law and of government, and is frequently associated with corruption, particularly in the allocation of timber concessions and raw materials. Illegally logged timber products are invariably cheaper than legitimate products; they distort national and regional markets and undermine incentives for sustainable forest management. The World Bank once observed that ‘widespread illegal extraction makes it pointless to invest in improved logging practices. This is a classic case of concurrent government and market failure"
Analysis of illegal logging in fragile states and from countries that have emerged from conflicts indicate that substantial revenues from illegal logging fund national and regional conflicts for example in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For some time, rebels were sustained primarily by the revenue from logging areas under their control.
By definition, the scale of illegal logging in the Eastern Africa region is difficult to estimate, but it is believed that more than half of all logging activities may be conducted illegally. According to the World Bank, worldwide estimates suggest that illegal activities may account for over a tenth of the total global timber trade, representing products worth at least $15bn a year.

Written by Wilson Kipkore, Programme Head, Environmental Security Programme, ISS Nairobi