Blood Timber

 By Pooja Shethji

In the fall of 1999, the African nation of Liberia found itself embroiled in its second civil war in less than a decade. The conflict between rebels and the formal government lasted more than four years, taking with it the lives of more than 150,000 and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Experts agree, however, that fighting would have likely ended sooner were it not for the Liberian government's sale of illegally harvested timber.

Known as "blood timber," logs illegally extracted and sold from protected areas can not only fuel corruption, arms sales, and human rights abuses in politically unstable countries, but it can also have devastating environmental and economic impacts. As governments partake in this practice, they are hastening deforestation, threatening wildlife, and increasing the carbon emissions that lead to climate change. Additionally, the World Bank estimates that $15 billion in revenues and forgone economic growth have been lost globally in the past decade alone.

The joint World Policy Institute-Demos paper, “Fairly Trading the World’s Timber,” highlights Liberia's experience in its calls for domestic and international level reforms to curb illegal logging and promote sustainable forest management. The authors of the report—Senior Fellow William Powers and Research Assistant Andrea Wong—contend that the onus of responsibility does not lie solely with exporting countries, however. Major timber consumers, China in particular, need to do their part as well.

As the real-estate boom in China continues, the nation has increasingly turned to foreign imports to feed the voracious appetite of its surging middle class. Despite mounting international pressure, the country still has neither strong legislation that bans the import of illegal timber nor a procurement policy which encourages legal logging. As such, China is the primary recipient of illegal logs from countries including Madagascar and Gabon.

The country’s role as a major manufacturer of goods has also had significant implications in the struggle to combat illegal logging. Roughly 84 percent of Wal-Mart’s wood products, says the report, are manufactured in China. Worryingly, the lack of enforcement when it comes to the use of illegal timber means that this cheaper source of wood may often be the most affordable choice for manufacturers. One might also find illegal timber as a part of China’s rapidly growing furniture exports, which are often sent to Europe and the United States. As a result, Western consumers, whose governments are actively trying to curb the practice, can unknowingly support the blood timber trade during routine shopping trips.

Despite much rhetoric about sustainable forest management, China has yet to take a strong stance with respect to global forest degradation. The country signed a Memoranda of Understanding to combat illegal logging with Indonesia in 2002, the United States in 2008, and the European Union in 2009. However, China has not taken additional measures to implement these commitments since.  

In addition, the Chinese government admitted in 1994 that exploitation of the country’s forests may have led to that year's devastating floods. Evidently, they have acknowledged the impact illegal logging can have, yet their actions continually suggest an unwillingness to coordinate with other countries to put an end to this practice.

Timely reform, however, can ensure that illegal logging practices do not devolve further in the face of burgeoning demand from developed and developing countries. “Fairly Trading Timber” argues that China must adopt domestic legislation barring the import of illegal timber and negotiate bilateral trade agreements such as the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with exporting countries. This, coupled with an increase in consumer pressure and media attention, can have a major impact on the rate of global timber loss. But, the world must work together if we are to avoid many of the harmful effects of irresponsible logging practices.

“Fairly Trading the World’s Timber: Lessons on Global Forest Governance and Trade from Europe and Liberia” is available here.


Pooja Shethji is currently interning at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user robertjosiah]

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