Tackling illegal logging

| 1st April 2009
Reporting from the front-line of environmental activism, Andrew Wasley takes a closer look at those combating illegal logging

Virtually everything we buy – food, clothing, household appliances or holidays – comes with an ecological price-tag, but there are often other, unreported, costs attached. Across the globe, a growing number of brave and pioneering activists and journalists face persecution and danger – including violence, intimidation, harassment, censorship and even murder – as they tackle the social and environmental impacts of modern consumerism.

Whether trade union activists in Colombia, fair trade advocates in West Africa or anti-mining campaigners in West Papua, the risks are acute and the stakes high. Those tackling illegal logging and the illicit trade in timber face particular dangers. Logging costs the global economy US$10-15 billion a year, and there are clear links between deforestation and global warming, as well as serious social justice and human rights abuses involved.

Shockingly, the international community has been slow to recognise the problem, with resources allocated to fighting the trade hardly registering compared to those allocated to fighting the illicit trades in drugs or arms.

So much of the struggle is being fought – in true David and Goliath style – between a small but brave band of activists and campaigning journalists, and the criminal rackets profiting from the plunder of our most biologically important rainforests. Those squaring up to these timber barons are paying a heavy price.

In the Philippines last November, journalist Aristeo Padrigao Monday had his face blown off in front of his seven-year-old daughter in Gingoog City after investigating illegal logging for radio station dxRS Radyo Natin and the Mindanao Monitor Today. He had been vocal about the involvement of local politicians. Just months before, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, journalist Khim Sambo and his son were gunned down in the street. A reporter with newspaper Moneakseka Khmer, Sambo often wrote about illegal logging, including the involvement of powerful government figures.

These two are just the latest in a long line of journalists and campaigners to be killed, injured or persecuted while tackling logging. The problem has become so acute in Indonesia that campaigners created a dedicated security network and emergency ‘helpline’ for those in trouble. The move followed shocking cases such as that of Arbi Kusno. A tireless exposer of the illicit timber trade, he was attacked by a mob believed to be working for timber smugglers and armed with spears, machetes and hydrochloric acid. Repeatedly stabbed and slashed, one of Kusno’s hands and an ear were severed. His injuries were so severe he was assumed dead and carted off to the morgue – only to regain consciousness en route.

In Mexico, in 2007, 20-year-old activist Aldo Zamora was gunned down by assassins angry at his opposition to logging in the Tlahuica indigenous community. In Guarizama, Honduras, in 2006, two forest campaigners, Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Murillo Cartagena, were butchered by attackers working under the influence of a logging cartel.

The killings followed worldwide outrage at the brutal murder of rainforest activist Dorothy Stang in Brazil’s Para state in 2005. The incident shone a rare spotlight on the huge dangers facing campaigners and, for the first time, put the issue on the map.

In February, the European Parliament voted in legislation to help combat logging. Under the proposals, timber companies will be required to prove they are buying and trading legally harvested timber products within Europe. The measures will see stronger penalties for flouting the law. National authorities will be given the green light to investigate and the power to prosecute abuses.

This goes some way to curtailing the trade in illegal timber, but much of the responsibility rests with timber-hungry consumers. The UK spends a staggering £712 million annually on illegal wood products, some £11.96 per person. This appetite for cheap wood means the UK is now the world’s third-largest importer of dodgy timber, after China and Japan.

Despite the plethora of eco-labelling and certification schemes, high-profile press stories and constant campaigning by pressure groups, British consumers appear to be addicted to cheap timber and blind to the chain of abuses that lie behind many timber products. Each weekend thousands queue up to purchase tables, chairs, cabinets, blinds and other similar, seemingly innocent and unremarkable items. Many are made from illegally logged timber, much linked to conflict, corruption and human rights violations.

In a matter of minutes, the Ecologist located online a myriad of products made from wood of dubious origin: snooker cues of ramin, listed as vulnerable by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora); floor tiles of merbau, linked to serious ecological injustices; luxury yacht decking of Myanmar teak, supposedly subject to an EU-wide embargo following the Myanmar regime’s brutal suppression of democracy protests. The list goes on.

Those responsible for manufacturing, shipping, importing and retailing items linked to controversial timber sources need to be brought to task, but those fuelling the trade by continuing to purchase timber products of dubious or illegal origin need to take responsibility and exercise restraint too.

In this age of ethical enlightenment – here in the UK at least – there should be little room for complacency or ignorance. If consumers can say no to factory-farmed chicken or sweatshop-produced clothes, we can say no to cheap blood timber. For the remaining forests and those battling to expose their destruction, the consequences of continuing to ignore the providence of our timber are simply too great.

Andrew Wasley is a journalist with investigative agency Ecostorm, and a producer for the Ecologist Film Unit

For more information:

Greenpeace Good Wood Guide

Forest Stewardship Council

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