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.

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The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products. Continue reading