Illegal timber harvesting is a major driver of deforestation and habitat loss in Africa, SE Asia, Central and South America (Nellemann 2012), accounting for up to 90% of tropical deforestation in some countries, and attracting the world’s biggest organized crime groups (INTERPOL 2020).  Global Financial Integrity listed illegal logging and trade (ILAT) as the third largest transnational crime and most profitable natural resource crime, worth up to $157 billion annually (May and Clough, 2017).  ILAT destroys large swaths of forest, negatively impacting climate and endangers the livelihoods of 1.6 billion forest-dependent people (May and Clough, 2017). 

One of eight containers from a 208-ton seizure of African Rosewood made in Singapore, March 2020.

While the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt across the globe, for some people, especially those within indigenous communities, the negative effects of ILAT are immediate and has led to death to those who oppose the destruction.  In addition to an estimated 1.6 billion people, about 80% of terrestrial species live in forests according to the World Wildlife Fund and thus, are also affected by deforestation. 

Wood from a felled tree takes an extensive, often complex journey.  Once cut, the mixing of legally and illegally sourced wood begins and, as the processing chain continues, the more difficult the process becomes to determine the species and origin.  The log is processed into lumber, various wood construction materials, furniture, and other wood-based products.  Such manufacturing activities can take place in multiple countries.  From there the products are transported to other countries, with the Europe and the United States being among the top importers, and because the end product is often highly processed, it is difficult to identify the species and origin of the wood, and thus, to regulate its trade.  The primary cause of illegal logging is the profitability with impunity.  In part, this impunity derives from the lack of tools to identify the species and source of wood.  The ability to identify wood species is cited as the most critical component (Figure 1) to mitigating ILAT and vessel tracking/supply chain monitoring is second. 

Two existing projects within CEFS immediately address these priority issues.  The XyloTron is for species identification, supported by the Paul G Allen Family Foundation, and Arbor Harbor is for supply chain monitoring, supported by the Forest Service International Programs.  Together, CEFS will advance these projects and establish new initiatives to avoid the destruction of the forest ecosystems and to limit climate change. 

Figure 1. Survey of INTERPOL Forestry Crime Working Group on needs to address illegal logging. Wood species identification and vessel tracking are the top two needs.