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Purposes for which wild flora is illegally targeted


Plants play an intrinsic role in human societies and cultures. Timber and non-timber flora can be found in various industries and they have different uses, including furniture, construction materials, food, medicines, cosmetics, fragrances, and ornaments (Lavorgna et al., 2020). Some activities, legal or illegal, put pressure on populations of wild flora. Certain wild flora is harvested to make use of the resource directly or to be sold on a legal or illegal market. Other wild flora is simply illegally destroyed in furtherance of other activities (licit or illicit), such as the conversion of forest land for agriculture. This section explores which enterprises can foster the illegal exploitation of wild flora.

Illegal forest conversion for agriculture and mining

Since 1990, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through forest conversion. While several factors have contributed to global deforestation, including (illegal) logging, infrastructure, urban expansion, mining, and increasing populations, on a global scale, agricultural expansion is the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity (FAO and UNEP, 2020), although it remains a challenge to determine how much of this is due to illegal activities. Lawson (2014) introduced the concept of “illegal forest conversion” and estimated that 49 percent of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was due to illegal conversion for commercial agriculture. Brazil and Indonesia together accounted for an estimated 75 percent of the global forest area that was illegally converted to agricultural land (Lawson, 2014). It is generally agreed that most deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which represents two-thirds of the total Amazon, concerns illegal forest conversion (Lawson, 2014; Escobar, 2020; Rajão et al., 2020).

The Gran Chaco, South America’s second largest forest, is also seriously affected by illegal forest conversion. Forest conversion for soy (cattle feed) decreased in the Amazon after 2004, but conversion of Brazil's pastureland to soy production has caused indirect land-use change by pushing pasture expansion in Brazil from the Amazon to the Cerrado (Brazilian tropical savanna), as well as elsewhere in South America (Seymour and Harris, 2019). In South and Central America, deforestation for cattle can be associated with the trafficking of drugs, mainly cocaine (see box below).

In Indonesia, the 2019 manmade forest fires, some of them illegal and many aimed at creating palm oil plantations, released a thick haze and blanketed eight provinces in smoke. It led to a damage and economic loss of USD 5.2 billion in the period between June and October 2019, roughly the equivalent of 0.5 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. Not only did 900,000 people report respiratory health diseases, the haze and associated air pollution also led to the closure of 12 airports and hundreds of schools across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (World Bank, 2019).

Illegal mining is another driver of deforestation and a reason for illegal forest conversion. Wildcat and so-called small-scale gold mining is especially prevalent in tropical rainforests. A serious detrimental side-effect of the many small-scale illegal mining operations is that the mercury commonly used to separate gold from soil and rock typically ends up in the water streams, contaminating fish stocks, which can have lethal consequences for those who consume them (Zabyelina and Uhm, 2020). While the negative environmental and social impacts of illegal gold mining are well established, for a considerable period it was believed that mining was merely a minor contributor to deforestation. More recent research has demonstrated that mining-induced deforestation has a much broader impact, leading to nearly 10 percent of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (Sonter, 2017).

While illegal gold mining is perhaps one of the best-known drivers of deforestation, other forms of mining - to extract diamonds, coltan, tin and others - also contribute. The largest tropical rainforests on the planet, such as in the Amazon Basin and Congo Basin, are also major areas for illegal mining. The Amazon Rainforest is a hotspot, with over 2,300 illegal mining sites and over 245 large-scale mining areas identified (Darlington, 2018).

Land grabbing

Land grabbing can be defined as the “capturing of control of relatively vast tracts of land and other natural resources through a variety of mechanisms and forms that involve large-scale capital that often shifts resource use orientation into extractive character” (Borras et al., 2020, p. 609). Land grabbing fosters deforestation by facilitating illegal forest conversion. The issue of land grabbing is complex, in part because it is not necessarily always illegal. Further, determining legality is problematic because it is related to land tenure, varying traditional land-use rights around the world (e.g. of indigenous communities) and land registration, which is itself a complex issue.

For example, Brazil has 59% percent of its territory within the Amazon Basin, and in such a large area, land registration is no easy task. Brazilian law requires a GPS-referenced map to apply for official (territorial) land rights. The process of georeferencing areas with modern GPS equipment and the associated heavily bureaucratic process is easier for wealthy, large landholders than for traditional forest-dwelling communities. As parts of the Brazilian Amazon are undesignated public forests, some of these areas are being illegally claimed by land grabbers, who later subdivide it for sale to ranchers (Fearnside, 2020). This can contribute to deforestation by converting forest land for other uses.

Example: Illegal land registry in Brazil

Undesignated public forests (UPF) in the Brazilian Amazon are particularly vulnerable to illegal land grabbing, land speculation, and deforestation. Of the 49.8 million hectares of UPF in the Brazilian Amazon, 11.6 million are illegally registered as “private property” in the Brazilian Environmental Rural Registry (CAR).

The CAR system is a self-declaratory instrument within the Brazilian Forest Code (Law 12,651/2012) in which property owners must register the georeferenced boundary of their properties, so as to enable an environmental assessment by the authorities. This system is frequently abused to illegally grab land by making a legal claim of ownership where no such legal claim exists.

In May 2020, Brazil’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office identified almost 10,000 tracts of land that were registered as private property in the CAR system overlapped with indigenous territories.

(Azevedo-Ramos et al., 2020; Ministério Público Federal, 2020)

Consumer demand for wild flora

The illegal taking or exploitation of flora not only occurs through illegal deforestation, forest fragmentation and forest degradation, it also takes place when flora is illegally harvested for direct use or consumption. This section provides an overview of the demand patterns driving illegal exploitation of wild flora around the world.

Furniture and construction

There is a global demand for high-quality wood for furniture and construction, as well as for a wide range of products ranging from wood for musical instruments to teak for shipbuilding. Hardwood from tropical rainforests is highly resistant to water, and is popular for canal construction, decks, piers, doors, window frames, and garden furniture, for example. Illegally-harvested wood from the temperate forests of Siberia is used to make furniture, while illegally-harvested teak from South East Asia is used for shipbuilding in Europe (Khatchadourian, 2008; EIA 2019; EIA, 2020).

Tropical hardwood is also popular in modern architecture, as it allows for a pleasing combination of endurance and aesthetics. Hardwoods are also used indoors, for flooring, stairs, doors and furniture. Burls from trees, such as those illegally sawn from protected redwoods in the US, are used for high-end furniture (Kurland et al. 2018). In New Zealand, exporting indigenous timber is legal if the timber in question is classified as a “finished and manufactured” timber product (Ministry for Primary Industries, 2021, p. 2). Notwithstanding, the roots and slabs of swamp kauri timber – one of the world’s most expensive timbers - were being sold and exported as tabletops until a 2018 Supreme Court decision ruled that these did not qualify as manufactured indigenous timber product and hence were illegal under the Forest Amendment Act 1993 (Ministry for Primary Industries, 2020).

Example: Illegally sourced wood

In 2017, a German court determined that a 470-foot yacht contained illegally-sourced wood on its deck. An analysis of the composition and ring structure found that the teak timber on the deck of the EUR400 million yacht likely came from forests in Myanmar. Teak from primary rainforest, such as that in Myanmar, is popular among boatbuilders for decking, due to its resistance to rot, its strength, its low levels of shrinkage and the ease in working it.

The German court case signals a trend of increased timber law enforcement in EU countries. The European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) prohibits the placing of illegally harvested timber and products from that timber on the European market. The EUTR also requires EU traders who place timber products on the European market to exercise “due diligence” to prevent sales of illegal timber.

In 2017, the EU banned teak timber from Myanmar, as ‘none of the assurances that the Member State competent authorities have received can be relied upon as sufficient for demonstration of compliance with the EUTR’.

(European Commission, n.d.b ; European Parliament, 2019 ; Walsh, 2017)

Example: Rosewood

“Rosewood” is a “trade term for a wide range of tropical hardwoods, not a botanical category; it includes several tropical hardwoods, often richly hued and fragrant. The use of rosewood (or hongmu 紅木) in China dates back some three thousand years. It is used for artwork and luxury furniture, particularly replica Ming and Qing dynasty pieces, which are traded at high prices. In China, much of the timber is supplied from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Thailand, but also from African countries including Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Madagascar and Zambia.

The trade in several rosewood species is restricted under international law. The supply of rosewood can have devastating effects on the rainforests of these source countries; due to its slow growth, illegal logging can easily result in an irreversible loss of rosewood forests.

(Ayling, 2015; Cerutti et al., 2018).

Living and household - charcoal

Globally, charcoal is a dominant energy resource for cooking and heating in both rural and urban settings (Wyatt, 2012). Charcoal is obtained by heating wood and other organic matter, like plants, to release volatile elements such as water. The resulting solid, black material is frequently used for cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the charcoal sector is largely informal and poorly regulated (Sedano et al., 2019).

Some areas are known for large-scale illegal charcoal production and trafficking. Virunga National Park, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is Africa’s oldest national park, and it has suffered from illegal charcoal production and consequent deforestation. Illegal charcoal exploitation is considered one of the major threats to Virunga, as it has escalated into violent conflict that has cost both human (mainly forest rangers), and nonhuman lives (including gorillas) (Lovgren, 2007; Yee, 2017). Illegal charcoal production is part of a complex history of illegal natural resource exploitation and conflict in the area, which put pressure on the Park’s natural resources (Rembold et al., 2013).

A legitimate international trade of charcoal does exist, but trade routes for charcoal are often opaque. A study by WWF Germany (2018) found that the charcoal industry is characterized by the lack of transparency in its supply chain, which hinders any attempts to trace back the products’ origin, making it difficult to verify the legality of the trade (WWF, 2018, p. 45). An analysis of 4,500 charcoal samples from 150 charcoal bags that were bought in 11 European countries in 2019 and 2020 showed that 46% of the samples included wood from tropical and subtropical forests, which have the highest deforestation rates in the world. Only about one-quarter of the charcoal bags specified their exact origin, although half of those were found to be falsely labelled. (Irwin, 2020).

Example: International charcoal trafficking

In the Horn of Africa, criminal networks traffic Somali charcoal to the Middle East (Nichols 2018). A UN embargo has banned Somali charcoal imports since 2012 in an effort to reduce revenue generation for the Al Shabaab in Somalia. It is estimated that some 3.6 million bags of charcoal were produced in 2017 for export, generating some USD 7.5 million for Al Shabaab. Using fake country of origin certificates (from Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana), the charcoal was exported mainly to Iran, where it was packaged as Iranian charcoal. From Iran it was exported to other countries in the Middle East for use in water pipes.

(Nichols, 2018; Hassan, 2019).

Collections, souvenirs, ornamental plants and garden

Formally, most international trade in protected ornamental plants, such as orchids, is regulated by CITES. Research by Phelps and Webb (2015) shows that there is a thriving illegal trade in wild-collected protected ornamental plants in East Asia.

Orchids, celebrated for their diversity, are often highly localized and are found in relatively small populations. Their rarity makes them desirable collector’s objects. While much of the market for these special plants is legal, not much is known about the illegal trade, most of which is believed to be conducted via online market platforms. The increased use of the internet as a marketplace has increased pressure on wild orchid populations, with potentially devastating impacts on biodiversity. For example, in one case, 99% of all known plants of the newly discovered Paphiopedilum canhii were collected within half a year of its discovery; this race to collect was linked to the use of the Internet to distribute pictures of the new species (Hinsley, 2018).

Orchids are not the only plants targeted by collectors as souvenirs or decoration. Cycads, cacti and carnivorous plants are also objects of international consumer demand. Cycads are the most threatened group of plants, particularly impacted by illegal off-take and trade (Margulies et al. 2019). Cacti are among the five most threatened taxonomic groups of any species in the world. Due to anthropogenic pressures, about one-third of the known 1,478 global cacti species are threatened with extinction (Goettsch et al., 2015). The illegal taking of cacti from the wild (cactus theft) seems to be on the rise. A strong increase in the number of seized stolen cacti has been reported at US borders, and habitats in southern US states that were once rich in wild cacti (such as Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico) have lost many species as a result of theft from the wild (MacGivney, 2019). Similarly, the number of venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) in the wild has been decimated in a few decades (Yearsley, 2017). Just as with orchids, these markets are also subject to an overlap between legal and illegal trade. For both buyers and law enforcement, it is challenging to determine legality (Hinsley, 2018; Hinsley et al., 2018; Margulies et al., 2019; Marteache and Pires, 2020).

Example: Orchids

The popularity of orchids is not new. In the 19th century, orchids fetched high prices in the UK, in a so-called ‘orchidelirium’ that was likened to the 17th century ‘tulip mania’ in the Netherlands. Most formal global orchid trade is in artificially propagated, cut flowers and plants grown under controlled conditions. The ornamental orchid trade involves thousands of species that are traded between vendors and buyers all over the world, with over 1 billion live orchids being traded between 1996 and 2015. The trade can be divided into two types: first, the mass-market trade in a small number of varieties of inexpensive pot plants aimed at non-specialist buyers, usually involving hybrid plants. Secondly, the specialist ornamental trade, which involves many more species and hybrids. The consumers in this second market are largely specialist growers.

Whereas some specialists may be more likely to seek out wild plants deliberately, it is also possible that casual growers may purchase wild plants without realizing their origin.

The online illegal trade in orchids takes place on multiple platforms, involving international sellers and buyers, many of whom are also involved in the legal trade. Although all international movement of orchid species is regulated by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), with more than 70% of all CITES-listed species being orchids, traffickers take advantage of the lack of monitoring of online sales, especially on social-media and e-commerce websites, to advertise wild-collected plants, some of which are rare or protected species. The complexity of the overlapping legal and illegal markets makes it particularly difficult to detect and monitor illicit sales, even though many illicit sales activities take place in the open.

(Hinsley, 2016; Hinsley, 2018)

Medicinal use, healthcare and food

It is estimated that 95 percent of traditional medicines are based on plant material (Broad et al., 2012). The same plant species used in the production of medicine are sometimes found in tonics and supplements and are also often consumed for food (UNODC, 2016). As indicated by Timoshyna et al. (2020, p. 2): “Out of approximately 390,000 plant species distributed around the world, 60,000 plant species are estimated to be used globally for medicinal purposes, of which about 26,000 have well-documented use. Roughly 10% of these (3,000) are traded internationally.” In Appendix II, CITES includes over 800 species of medicinal and aromatic plants, making it an important international tool to regulate the legal trade (Timoshyna et al., 2020). For an overview of CITES implementation for medicinal and aromatic plants, see De Angelis and Timoshyna (2020).

Between 2006 and 2015, around 25,000 tonnes of wild flora listed in CITES Appendix II were traded legally, including 43 different species in total (Timoshyna et al., 2019). Analyses of importers’ annual reports show:

  • 75% of all wild-sourced exports originate in Mexico, Cameroon and South Africa
  • France, USA, Japan, Germany and Spain account for 77% of all imports
  • Two species (Candelilla -Euphorbia antisyphilitica- and African cherry -Prunus africana) accounted for 73% of the trade (by volume). Other species with significant trade volume included aloes (Aloe spp.), orchids (Dendrobium spp.) and agarwood (Aquilaria spp.)

According to reported CITES-related seizures by EU Member States in 2018, nearly one quarter of all seizures included wildlife products for medicinal use, making it the largest product category of all reported seizures (Timoshyna et al., 2020). This included 260,562 plant-derived medicinal items with many Appendix II-listed medicinal and aromatic plants, including aloe (Aloe maculate), tall gastrodia tuber (Gastrodia elata), Dendrobium orchids, and African cherry (Prunus Africana) (Timoshyna et al., 2020).

Species like American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are harvested for their medicinal properties as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (Kiefer and Pantuso, 2003). Other species, like Euphorbia antisyphilitica or candelilla, are harvested to be made into wax that is used in cosmetics, foods, and industrial lubricants (Schneider, 2009). American ginseng and Euphorbia are both Appendix II species, so some amount of trade is allowed, but CITES records indicate illegal trade happens as well (CITES, 2018).

In Madagascar, vanilla orchids are grown in plantation-like settings to harvest vanilla, a flavouring whose price has risen to that of the price for silver. The high value is contributing to deforestation to make room for growing more vanilla, causing conflicts with local communities. The high value also attracts thieves, sometimes resulting in an escalation of violence. There are suggestions that the trade in vanilla is acting as a means of laundering the money from the trafficking of rosewood in Madagascar, showing the complexity of and connections between different types of flora exploitation, see Box (Watts, 2018).

Example: Violence and crime convergence of vanilla cultivation in Madagascar

The vine of the vanilla orchid produces fleshy pods that are used for the manufacturing of vanilla flavouring. Madagascar is the world’s primary supplier of natural vanilla pods, supplying 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla.

Vanilla prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. In 2013, vanilla was traded at USD 20 per kilogram, but in 2018 prices increased to USD 500-600 per kilogram, comparable to the price of silver.

The high vanilla prices have created a ‘rush’ on vanilla, which has also led to much theft and related violence, including in some cases extrajudicial killings. There have been dozens of murders reported in relation to vanilla crop theft. One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the price for vanilla is that vanilla production is related to the illegal exploitation of other flora, notably rosewood, for which Madagascar is one of the main supply countries. Madagascar’s rosewood is highly prized for its red colour, and sales run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which is illegal.

The illegal rosewood trade has provided rosewood vendors with large quantities of cash. One of the means of laundering the large quantities of cash generated in Madagascar’s currency, the ariary, is by buying vanilla, which can be sold in dollars. This way, the proceeds of timber trafficking are being laundered by investing in the vanilla business.

(Watts, 2018)

Cosmetics and fragrance

There is a long history of using flora and its products for the manufacture of industrial cosmetics. Some species are targeted specifically due to their fragrance characteristics. For example, Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) is a plant from the high-altitude Himalayan regions, which is harvested and used in aromatherapy, cosmetics, and food. While most of the trade in Jatamansi is legal (Timoshyna et al., 2019), the large trade volumes threatened the species’ sustainability, exemplifying that legal does not necessarily mean sustainable trade. Ultimately, Jatamansi was listed on Appendix II of CITES (TRAFFIC, 2020).

Another example is Brazilian rosewood (pau rosa), which became popular when rosewood oil became a key ingredient in fragrances such as the well-known perfume Chanel no. 5 (released in 1921). Originally, most rosewood oil came from French Guyana, but when the local tree population was nearly driven to the brink of extinction, the Brazilian Amazon became the main source. By the late 1980s, the rosewood population in the eastern Amazon was virtually eliminated (Rohter, 2005).

Another example, agarwood, is a highly sought-after heartwood, produced by wounded Aquilaria trees. This particular species illustrates how the use of flora for cosmetics and fragrance can lead to the illegal exploitation of a particular resource. The resin-impregnated wood has been used in perfumery, cosmetics and medicine by various cultures for centuries. The high prices per kilogram make it one of the most valuable wildlife products (UNODC, 2016). For more details see Box.

Example: Agarwood

Some trees of the Aquilaria species (Thymelaeaceae family), found in South and Southeast Asia, produce a fragrant resin as a defence mechanism to cope with a wound or pathogen. In this process, the resin impregnates the heartwood of the tree, rendering the wood highly aromatic. The resulting agarwood (also known as eaglewood, aloeswood, junko, gaharu, oud / oudh) has been used in a number of cultures for thousands of years. For example, in Chinese and Ayurvedic treatments, it has been applied for its medicinal and cosmetic benefits.

Today, solid pieces of agarwood serve as the basis for a variety of products, such as natural art and trinkets. Larger profits, however, can be obtained with derivates from the wood. Agarwood chips are ground into powder and further processed for incense, whereas agarwood oil is obtained through distillation and serves as the basis for expensive perfumes. The oil is particularly popular, fetching tens of thousands of dollars per litre in some Arab countries.

Sourcing agarwood in the wild has led to the decline of the entire Aquilaria species. While not all Aquilaria trees produce the desirable resin, it is generally impossible to know without felling the tree, resulting in an indiscriminate targeting of Aquilaria trees in many Southeast Asian countries. Combating the illegal trade in agarwood remains a challenge, given the variety of different shapes it comes in, the different names it is known under and the lack of sophisticated procedures that would be required for detection. The emergence of fake agarwood, so-called “Black Magic Wood” may further complicate the problem.

(Persoon 2007; UNODC, 2016)
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