Illegal logging in Indonesia: the link between forest crime and corruption

Photo: UNODC1 June 2010 - At a small jetty on the Tolak River, a skiff sits low in the water, loaded with timber. A narrow trail of planks leads from the riverbank into the Sungai Putri forest on Kalimantan island in Indonesia. The trail is surrounded by thick underbrush and tree stumps, plus a scattering of young trees. Three kilometres in, the harsh buzz of a chainsaw disturbs the peaceful atmosphere. Two kilometres further, six barefoot young men appear. One of them hoists the chainsaw, its metre-long blade making him seem smaller than he is. His comrades carry freshly hewn planks on their shoulders.

These young men are illegal loggers. They spend three or four days at a time in the mosquito-infested forest, cutting down four large trees a day. They haul the wood out to the river along the wooden track on a makeshift two-wheel dolly. For their efforts, they earn roughly US$ 3. Small teams like these are common in Indonesia's forests, but so too are large, well-organized illegal logging crews, sometimes working for well-known companies that hold legitimate logging permits.

Indonesia possesses 123 million hectares of forest, equal to 10 per cent of global forest cover, including the third largest tropical rainforest, and is a leading supplier to the world's legal timber market. However, the growing global demand for and falling supply of wood, coupled with inadequate law enforcement and forest management, means that Indonesia is also a major source of illegally harvested timber. The Indonesian Ministry of Forestry estimates that in recent years, the country has lost between 1.6 million and 2.8 million hectares of forest annually (between 3 and 5 hectares a minute) to illegal logging and land conversion.  Meanwhile, logging has degraded much of the remaining forest cover and, as easily accessible forests have been cleared, loggers are moving into pristine forests in once remote areas like Kalimantan.

Illegal logging relies on corruption to stay in business. It depends on the complicity of officials throughout the entire production chain from forest to port, including forest rangers, local government, transport authorities, police and customs. Organized criminal groups are involved in transporting illegal timber, as well as endangered species, out of the country and across multiple borders.

Illegal logging undermines legitimate industry by undercutting prices for wood on the global market, and represents billions in lost tax revenue. At the community level, it destroys traditional ways of life centred on the forest, even as it makes local people complicit in deforestation. They often know nothing about global warming and may not realize they are harming their own communities; they are simply trying to eke out a living.

But illegal logging is not just Indonesia's problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that cutting down forests contributes to almost 20 per cent of overall greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth's atmosphere. In other words, the devastation of  Indonesia's forests is endangering us all.

Photo: UNODCEnvironmental crime, such as this illegal logging in Indonesia, is becoming increasingly organized and transnational in nature and can be seen, just as drug and firearm trafficking, as one of the most significant areas of transborder criminal activity, threatening to disrupt societies and hinder sustainable development. In the case of environmental crime, taking preventive action is essential. A forest destroyed takes four decades to replenish, and a species once extinct is lost forever.

UNODC is working to break the link between illegal logging and corruption in Indonesia. UNODC is strengthening the capacity of Indonesian law enforcement and criminal justice officials to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate forest crimes and corruption cases linked to them, including targeting money-laundering by the organized crime kingpins behind these illegal activities rather than going after low-level perpetrators like the boy-loggers in Sungai Putri forest. UNODC is also working closely with civil society organizations to support "barefoot investigators" who look for and expose forest crimes in their local communities.

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