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?