Activists have disputed the conclusions of a new analysis suggesting that quantities of illegally logged timber have dropped by between 50 and 75 per cent in Brazil, Cameroon and Indonesia.
A report by Chatham House analysed five timber producing countries and while no improvements could be shown in Ghana or Malaysia, significant decreases in illegal timber exports were estimated in three other countries, in which a combination of government action and NGO campaigning had resulted in more efforts to tackle the problem.
However, even with these declines, illegal harvesting was still estimated to make up 35–72 per cent of logging in the Brazilian Amazon, 22–35 per cent in Cameroon, 59–65 per cent in Ghana, 40–61 per cent in Indonesia, and 14–25 per cent in Malaysia.
Forest campaigners suggest even these figures may underestimate the scale of the problem because of the growth in government-supported illegal practices.
'The perception is that illegal logging has decreased but the reality is it has not,' said Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Center for Environment and Development (CED) in Cameroon and former Goldman Environmental Prize winner.
'The companies involved have got clever and have been able to adapt to a different system. It's now a political issue for generating cash from licensing from which companies can then gain political protection for their illegal activities. It's very difficult to eradicate when some of those responsible for cutting it out are also benefiting,' he said.
The Chatham House report used two methods to calculate the size of the illegal logging sector. First, it compared total consumption with licensed logging, with the difference assumed to be illegal. Secondly, it assessed the countries on a number of policies, including timber tracking, law enforcement, government policy and legislation.
Brazil scored well in this assessment but enforcement of new regulations there remains poor. For example, the total value of fines increased eight-fold between 2003 and 2007 but only 2.5 per cent of them have been successfully collected.
The report says reductions in illegal logging in Cameroon and Indonesia over the last decade have occurred despite poor policies in both countries and acknowledgements that there is a growing problem of companies abusing their licences and going unpunished.
It concluded that addressing corruption and lack of enforcement would require a 'profound overhaul of government policy and regulation'.
Nguiffo said a stronger legal framework to allow local communities to challenge illegal logging would make a bigger impact on government corruption.
As well as producing countries, the report also analysed progress being made in those processing and consuming illegally logged timber.
While it noted progress in the US and Europe in bringing in tougher legislation, it said China and Vietnam, which export much of the processed products like plywood and furniture entering Europe, did not yet have any legislation to prevent the import of illegally sourced timber.
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