Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

Illegal logging is one of the gravest threats to the environment, and to the people (and countries) that depend on forest resources. Global Witness’s 2013 Annual Review describes industrial logging as a force that “drives land grabs, promotes corruption, contributes to climate change, fuels conflict and human rights abuses, and threatens over one billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods and well-being.” The problem has been documented with surprising depth. Prominent examples include investigative work done by Global Witness (including two short films, Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, which shows undercover interviews with members of then-Chief Minister of Sarawak Taib Mahmud’s family and legal team advising a “foreign investor” how to use bribery and fraud to illegally clear land for a palm oil plantation, and Rubber Barons, which documents land grabbing by a Vietnamese rubber firm), as well as other groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently recounted how army officials protect Chinese loggers’ passage into Myanmar, despite new laws entirely banning foreign exports of logs. In the popular media, NPR’s All Things Considered and The New Yorker looked at illegal logging in Russia and allegations of its yield being sold by major U.S. retailers, while The Economist called out HSBC’s involvement with dirty loggers. The issue is not confined to developing economies—a World Bank paper enumerated the breadth and variety of possible illegal acts surrounding the logging industry and its products worldwide, noting that practically all involve corruption. The problem, then, appears well-known and reported but remains widespread, possibly getting worse.

Illegal logging remains persistent largely because of pervasive corruption. A number of proposals have already laid out systems to address forestry corruption. Possibilities include land tenure arrangements that give management to local or indigenous groups, certification schemes for wood products, and a variety of monitoring and transparency mechanisms. A 2009 World Bank report provided a “comprehensive framework” involving five principal parts, each with a number of sub-components. Scholars, NGOs, and international organizations have noted the need for technology to increase monitoring capabilities. Technological developments may offer the key to progress in the fight against illegal logging—allowing circumvention of (or greater pressure on) the corrupt government officials who ignore, or sometimes participate in or profit from, the unlawful destruction of forests.

A previous post discussed one such technology, isotope provenancing, used to identify the origin of wood. This technology, however, has its limits. (For example, it does not help when forests are razed not to harvest the timber, but to clear the land for other uses, such as palm oil and rubber plantations.) Other new technologies can help show how corruption in the logging industry happens, working forward from the site of the problem instead of tracing back from imported products. One of the most promising tools—satellite imaging—is in fact already available, and could be very effective if deployed more appropriately and aggressively.

Global Forest Watch already has a map that uses satellite data showing worldwide tree cover. It allows users to show forest cover changes over time and has been reported in the media as a key tool. Consider some of the ways that this sort of satellite imagery could help combat illegal logging:

  • Most countries already have laws on land use or the availability, extent, and process of tree clearing. Corruption is made easier in that logging tends to happen “in remote places, away from public scrutiny,” as the above World Bank paper notes. Satellite images could be used to assess whether legal permissions align with the facts on the ground. If permits or concessions are involved, they could be compared to the scope of cleared land shown on satellites. If tree felling is banned in certain areas, including on privately owned lands, satellite photos could keep accountability on the map (literally).
  • Images could be used to monitor and limit new land development deals. Satellite data can be used, at least initially, to identify the huge fires usually set to clear land. Where too many fires or too much land clearing is shown, international observers could step in. If land grabbing has occurred, displaced persons should be able to contact international organizations. Outside political actors should then put pressure on domestic leaders, backed by satellite data, to account for excessive land clearing.
  • Illegal logging, as noted by the stories linked above, is often fueled by overseas demand. The U.S. Forest Service points to the difficulties in pricing timber, even in a regulated market—demand can fluctuate overnight. It would be impracticable to trace the route of every wood product from country to country. (The Kimberly Process for certifying conflict-free diamonds has tried to do that but many say it is failing, even for vastly more valuable goods.) Where wholesalers of wood or wood products claim legitimate origin of their stocks, those figures could be checked against the satellite imagery of activity in those areas. This would require some comparison across wholesalers, but the onus should be on importing companies to ensure wood is not coming from unclean hands. In the U.S., the Lacey Act makes, or should make, retailers have the job of checking their materials’ sources. Furthermore, as Wired magazine puts it, “The [satellite] map could play an important role by allowing the final link in the supply chain—consumers—to trigger accountability that reaches all the way back to the source.”

Of course, actually implementing these basic ideas would entail a number of potentially difficult technical and practical questions. The larger point, though, is that these sorts of technology-based solutions are necessary if the international community is to make progress on this issue. The usual forms of domestic-level enforcement and accountability are unlikely to be effective. Dirty logging pits losses to the environment, the economy, and the homelands of rural people against domestic local law enforcement and national politicians who stand to make piles of cash without much to lose. Moreover, monitoring on the ground is extremely costly. But anyone with basic access to Google satellite imagery could, in theory, look into reports on illegal logging.

The Rubber Barons film mentioned above used satellite imagery effectively to document the extent of the problem it addressed. According to Global Witness, that led to some results, including a World Bank inquiry. This is a good first step. Scholars of the problem have asked for awareness-raising targeted at both residents of heavy logging countries and international observers. Imagine, say, an app asking users to compete to identify changes in certain areas’ forest cover. The Philippines uses a participatory monitoring system, asking communities to assist in inventory and planning around local resources. Technology could bridge the gap between such local efforts and national or international policies aimed at transparency and sustainability. Who will take the next steps to put available tools to good use?

12 thoughts on “Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

  1. Very interesting — thank you! I agree that satellite imagery and technology seems like a great step forward in fighting illegal logging. I’m also hopeful that if these tools yield good results, other areas of natural resource depletion that might also be susceptible to corruption or run into regulatory difficulties could adopt similar strategies as technology improves and might apply elsewhere. I know that the use of imagery is an important first step, but I also had questions about what might follow. Once technology sufficiently raises awareness and tracking of forest cover changes, what kinds of measures should be taken to uncover the act of bribery or corruption that led to those changes? Is there anything specific to the logging industry that would suggest that usual tactics and policies beyond general investigation (perhaps such as the World Bank inquiry you mention) including whistleblowers, punishments, etc, would be particularly helpful or challenging? Beyond that, in your opinion, do you think that there are any domestic-level ways to address the acts leading to forest cover changes, besides retailer/consumer advocacy/restraint? Since the technology seems like a promising way to address the costs of monitoring on the ground, I wonder if any domestic-level enforcement and accountability efforts could also benefit, or if the widespread nature of the problem necessitates that ultimately the onus will always be on the international community.

    • Good questions. In fact, my intuition is that the actual drivers of or high-level players directing corruption in logging may in fact be more difficult to pinpoint, even after initial monitoring could show something untoward. Certainly where truckloads of logs are crossing borders or leaving protected areas, the law enforcement officers in charge of checkpoints in those areas should be investigated, but the end use of the money is probably harder to trace, so whistleblowers or financial tracking would be particularly useful. In terms of domestic approaches (to address international illegal logging), the Lacey Act seems to present a comprehensive framework, but advocacy for or consumer demand for sustainable forest products (if the sources could be reliably proven) might eventually help decrease the end use of corruption-driven illegally logged wood products.

      • Great post, and great conversation in the comments here. I’d echo Jeanne’s concerns (also related to Sarah’s comments) about how to translate the discoveries gleaned from this information into something actionable. Naming-and-shaming sometimes works, but figuring out who is responsible and how to hold them accountable seems challenging, especially if many players in the political system are benefiting. Kaitlin, you mentioned the idea of neighbor country monitoring in response to Sarah. I’d be curious to know if there some countries which are actually good on this front (and not just because they don’t have any forests of their own) that would have an incentive to step up (and not risk the same critique being pointed back at them)–I know very little about this problem.

  2. Very cool post! I think drones would be a great supplement to satellites in this effort (and it appears drones are being used for this purpose in the Amazon: In particular, drones could be a cheaper and more immediate tool to detect and deter discrete instances of illegal logging. This would supplement satellite imagery which can show long-term impacts and patterns. One benefit of drones is that they are relatively low cost and can provide live video of the area.

    On a related point, although privacy concerns are probably minimal in unpopulated forest areas, I wonder if anyone has discussed or raised such concerns when these tools are being used for anticorruption purposes. I would hope that these technologies could be used to prevent corruption and protect the environment in a way that does not raise legitimate privacy concerns, but it may be an issue to keep an eye on as satellite and drones are used more for this purpose going forward.

    • Absolutely drones would be an interesting addition. One other comment, not posted here, introduced me to the idea being used in Africa to combine satellite imagery with on-the-ground GPS tracking to identify land grabs and use changes before destruction occurs (described here: In terms of privacy concerns, I think there is always a need for community engagement to balance investigative efforts with intrusions, although I fear that such concerns could also be used as an excuse why not to allow more intrusive investigations in exactly the areas where they are most needed. If illegal logging is happening where vulnerable communities live but where on-the-ground exposure by outsiders can be a risky, sometimes deadly, effort, perhaps participatory monitoring like the system in the Philippines could be a way to include privacy concerns in the dialogue while still allowing reporting to happen.

  3. Like Nathan, I also immediately thought about drone usage in combating corruption in the international logging industry. If, presumably, governments are opposed to illegal logging, do you think a program based on citizenry monitoring (bottom up policing) or a more official government sponsored program would be more effective?

    Additionally, though the analogy with illegal ivory trafficking is not a perfect one (i.e. I’d assume ivory is a smaller market, more trackable, and doesn’t share the multi-goal nature of illegal forest razing), one of the biggest steps in recent efforts to curb ivory trafficking is convincing its biggest markets (e.g. China) to implement governmental regulations that limit consumer access and demand. While the U.S. Forest Service’s point of difficulty in timber pricing may be a legitimate challenge in combating illegal timber trade, it still sounds like a bit of a cop out answer to me. If countries with the highest overseas demands promulgated more vigorous standards for timber sources, etc, and in essence, collapse its demand for supply that contains even traces of improper origins. This may be a more cynical read, but I sense that the real question seems to be at what (price) point these additional efforts would neutralize the competitiveness of the industry.

    Fascinating post–thanks for sharing!!

    • If I had a choice between citizen monitoring and a domestic program of government enforcement, I would choose citizen monitoring. My concern with government monitoring would be that the lucrative illegal logging trade probably requires at the very least the acquiescence (and more realistically, probably the active involvement of) high-level government officials. Anecdotally, my understanding in one particular country was that logging operations connected to a particular government official were allowed through checkpoints in vulnerable areas while locals or other operations trying to use the “protected” forests would be barred by the law enforcement officers tasked with monitoring the area. If I were a government monitor, I would simply make a show of stepping up enforcement against those “competitor” groups and clear the way for my own. At the same time, an international cooperative effort to increase logging practices between governments of neighboring countries, for example, might stand more of a chance.

      I like your analogy to the ivory trade, and in that case, where there should be no or almost no trade in ivory, regulation in the end-user market should definitely be used to curb demand. My consideration with more stringent regulation of wood products is the difficulty of reliably differentiate legitimately and non-legitimately sourced products. Isotope provenancing, discussed in the post linked above, can provide a geographic origin but is unwieldy as a long-term check. A certificate system, like the Kimberly Process for diamonds, might just increase incentives for fraud (assuming a certified-source product would fetch a higher price). Because wood is fungible, to me it seems like the best efforts would need to target the source.

  4. Satellite mapping seems like a fantastic first step towards developing technologies to detect and perhaps even to remedy and prosecute illegal logging. Whether the technology involves satellites or drones, I wonder which actors would make the best administrators. Is this a job for national governments? Local authorities? Development banks? Large NGOs? Public administrators may be at especially high risk of capture. The very impressive Global Forest Watch is convened by the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit with a well-established reputation advocating for economic and environmental justice. The risk for an NGO administrator — or indeed a development bank — may be an appearance of bias, or funding limitations. My initial sense is that an NGO or a development bank would probably be best-positioned, but I’m very interested to hear more ideas.

    • I agree that NGOs or international organizations (like a development bank) could be better positioned to avoid the influence of those who are involved in the illegal logging trade. I’ve described some of my concerns about involving government in response to Cindy’s comment above, but I also think government could pose a problem to involving NGOs or international organizations. In fact, Global Witness was kicked out of at least one country after its investigative efforts revealed ties to high-ranking government officials. Of course, the advantage of satellite technology is that you don’t have to be physically present in a place to see what’s happening. Drones might be usable even from out-of-country if local or long-range operators can be found, and if drones can be operated safely without fear of reprisal. At the same time, advocacy becomes more difficult if your message can’t reach the communities with a vested interest in their local natural resources. However, advocacy, pressure, or incentives from international communities and international organizations might be more effective in top-down efforts to rooting out the problem (pun intended).

  5. Thank you for this very interesting post. Satellites image as well as drones seem an efficient way to fight illegal logging.

    You however raised some concerns, inter alia the fact that usual forms of domestic enforcement and accountability are unlikely to be effective. This is an interesting point and I wonder if you thought about any specific accountability feature that should accompanied the use of satellite imagery in order to be an efficient tool against illegal logging.

    • This might be clear from my earlier comments, but I think international pressures, particularly from neighboring-country governments, could offer the best chance of getting those in charge to address the problem. Where my neighbor is producing similar wood or wood products but is able to sell it to an end user without exposing its source, my economic incentive to produce and use legitimate or sustainable sources of timber would probably fall, as would the likely market price for my products. For that reason, monitoring with participation from neighboring country governments (those who are not net importers of my illegal wood products) might offer one approach. At the same time, I’m not sure exactly what the system would look like or whether it would even be feasible.

  6. Pingback: Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging | Anti Corruption Digest

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