Illegal logging, black globalization, and undercover environmentalists

Black globalization is an evocative name for how multi-nationals and mafias can blur together by using violence and global trade to avoid regulation, certification, and quality control. In the New Yorker article The Stolen Forests Raffi Khatchadourian writes about the global trade in illegally logged timber, and how an environmental NGO, the environment investigation agency, collects data to document illegal logging and encourage law enforcement.

Chances are good that if an item sold in the United States was recently made in China using oak or ash, the wood was imported from Russia through Suifenhe. Because as much as half of the hardwood from Primorski Krai is harvested in violation of Russian law—either by large companies working with corrupt provincial officials or by gangs of men in remote villages—it is likely that any given piece of wood in the city has been logged illegally. This wide-scale theft empowers mafias, robs the Russian government of revenue, and assists in the destruction of one of the most precious ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. Lawmakers in the province have called for “emergency measures” to stem the flow of illegal wood, and Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources has said that in the region “there has emerged an entire criminal branch connected with the preparation, storage, transportation, and selling of stolen timber.”

A fifth of the world’s wood comes from countries that have serious problems enforcing their timber laws, and most of those countries are also experiencing the fastest rates of deforestation. Until a decade ago, many governments were reluctant to acknowledge illegal logging, largely because it was made possible by the corruption of their own officials. As early as the nineteeneighties, the Philippines had lost the vast majority of its primary forests and billions of dollars to illegal loggers. Papua New Guinea, during roughly the same period, experienced such catastrophic forest loss that it commissioned independent auditors to assess why it was happening; they determined that logging companies were “roaming the countryside with the self-assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out, and export the last remnants of the province’s valuable timber.” In 1998, the Brazilian government announced that most of the country’s logging operations were being conducted beyond the ambit of the law.

In 2001, experts with the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo coined a phrase, “conflict timber,” to describe how logging had become interwoven with the fighting there. The term is apt for a number of other places. In Burma, stolen timber helps support the junta and the rebels. In Cambodia, it helped fund the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal rebel factions in history. Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, distributed logging concessions to warlords and a member of the Ukrainian mafia, and the Oriental Timber Company—known in Liberia as Only Taylor Chops—conducted arms deals on his behalf. The violence tied to Taylor’s logging operations reached unprecedented levels, and in 2003 the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on all Liberian timber. (China, the largest importer of Liberian timber, tried to block the sanctions.) Shortly afterward, Taylor’s regime collapsed. An American official told me that the U.S. intelligence community “absolutely put the fall of Taylor on the timber sanctions.”

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