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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Staving Off Forest Exploitation

Air Date: Week of

Illegal logging around the world has contributed to environmental devastation, wars, and poverty. Living on Earth examines this topic in a series of interviews. First, reporter Cynthia Graber gives host Steve Curwood an overview of illegal logging operations. Then, Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, explains how trade in illegal timber helps fund international conflicts. In part two Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, continues his discussion about illegal logging in Africa. Then, Scott Paul, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace's Forest Initiative, explains how his organization is under criminal investigation for their work protesting illegal logging. And finally, John Turner, assistant secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, discusses President George Bush's initiative to help countries eradicate illegal logging within their borders.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. From the Amazon to Indonesia, forests around the world are disappearing at what some call alarming rates, and much of cutting is being done in violation of the law. Illegal logging is linked to environmental and human rights abuses around the world. And the issue is garnering the attention of a growing number of parties, from global forest activists to the president of the United States.

Today, we’ll be talking to a number of people involved in trying to stop illegal logging. Joining me today will be Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, a British organization that documents how contraband lumber supports wars. We’ll also be talking with Scott Paul of Greenpeace, the organization that’s been indicted by the Justice Department for its protests against illegal logging. And we’ll hear from John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State, about what the Bush administration is doing to help other countries do away with illegal logging within their borders. But first, Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber, joins me. Hi, Cynthia.

GRABER: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, Cynthia you’ve been following this story from some time. Tell me, what do we mean when we use the term “illegal logging?”

GRABER: Well, we’re talking about timber that’s cut down and used – and today we’re actually talking mostly about timber that’s exported – without the legal oversight of the host country. There are a lot of ways it could be illegal. There could be a protected area, and people are going in and logging. There could be a company that has rights to log an area, but they take more wood than they have the right to, or they take trees outside that area. It often happens out in the middle of nowhere and there’s a pretty rough crowd involved. I was in Brazil working on a story about the wood used for violin bows, and the people I was talking to told me about logging in general in Brazil. And they told me it’s just as lucrative a crime ring as drugs, and the people are just as rough. The World Bank agrees about how lucrative it is. According to their figures, the trade in illegal timber accounts for 15 billion dollars. That’s taking into account numbers such as the worth of the wood and the lost taxes and revenues to the home countries. Just to put that into context, it’s the same as all the money the World Bank gives out to all the governments they work with in the world.

But, Steve, just to be clear, legal logging doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable. But everyone working on this agrees – first, the logging needs to be legal, so there can be some oversight, and then you can talk about sustainability.

CURWOOD: Now, I can imagine that illegal logging takes place, what, just about everywhere. But Cynthia, tell me, where is this most prevalent? Where is it a really big problem?

GRABER: It’s probably most significant in tropical countries where there’s a lot of timber and often not enough oversight. Just to give you an idea, here are some statistics, again from the World Bank. More than 90 percent of the wood coming out of Cambodia, more than 80 percent of the wood coming out of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Benin. For Indonesia – and if you go shopping you’ll see that a lot of wood products come from Indonesia – the figures are anywhere from half to three fourths of the wood coming out of the country is illegally sourced.

CURWOOD: Well, obviously with this kind of cutting you’re seeing massive deforestation. There are going to be some huge environmental consequences, I would think.

GRABER: Absolutely. Deforestation itself is such a huge problem, and you have related impacts of trees not holding in water, and the soil. This can lead to huge floods. And there’s a really big human impact there. There were floods recently in Indonesia that left 200 people dead. That was said to be due to loosened soil on the hillsides from illegal logging. There are also billions of people in the world, many of them living at poverty, who depend on the forest for use of its resources. And then, of course, there’s loss of habitat.

Bruce Cabarle is director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Forests Program. He told me that there are 200 places that the World Wildlife Fund is focusing its resources on protecting. And almost a third of them are threatened by illegal logging. He had this to say about the Indonesian island of Sumatra which is one of the last strongholds for endangered elephants, tigers, and rhinos.

CABARLE: And at the current rates of deforestation, which are largely driven by illegal logging to feed pulp mills, we can see the elimination of all remaining lowland tropical rainforests on the island of Sumatra within the next five years, if action isn’t taken.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Well, Cynthia, the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest importers of forest products. How do we know when we buy stuff at the store that it’s been legally harvested? I mean, I got some lawn furniture recently – there was nothing on that said it was legal or illegal.

GRABER: There’s actually no way for you to know if it’s legal or illegal wood. There is an organization called the Forest Stewardship Council, and they certify – along with the groups that they work with around the world – they certify sustainably harvested wood. And if it’s FSC certified, and it’s sustainably harvested, then it is legal. Other than that, there really isn’t a way to know. All concerned citizens can do is ask. And by asking, they’ll let companies know that they’re interested.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Cynthia.

GRABER: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: And please stick with me as we bring in our first guest. Patrick Alley is one of the founders of the London-based group called Global Witness – an organization that exposes how conflicts around the world are fueled by trade in natural resources such as oil, diamonds, and, of course, illegal logging. So, tell us, Patrick Alley, how did you first get involved in this issue?

ALLEY: Well, myself and the two colleagues who together with me founded Global Witness, we used to work for an environmental organization around about 10, 12 years ago. And we saw a few areas in the world where you didn’t really know if a situation was an environmental problem, or a human rights problem, or a conflict problem -- and we sort of mulled over those ideas for a while. And I think the thing that really illustrated it for us was we were individually interested in Cambodia, and at that time the Khmer Rouge guerillas in Cambodia controlled the northern and western borders of the country, and maintained their war effort through the trade in timber with Thailand. And we thought, well, if you close that border then you cut off their funding, they can’t fight their war. Why doesn’t somebody do that? And we thought, well, why don’t we? We knew enough to think we could try. So, that’s how we set about beginning Global Witness.

CURWOOD: And how did you do it? Were you able to shut down that trade?

ALLEY: We did, actually. Half of what we do is to gather information. We believe that with primary information that we find out ourselves from investigations, covert investigations perhaps, if you find that information then no one can really argue with you. And once you have the information it’s a question of pulling the right levers to achieve change, and that those levers will be different in every situation. But in the case of Cambodia, what we did was to – we went into the timber companies posing as European timber buyers. We figured the only way they’d tell us anything is if they thought they were going to get money from us. Gradually, over time, we found out the whole trail, the whole chain of custody of the timber and were able to document the scale of the trade, which at that time was around about 20 million dollars per month. And then it was a question of trying to mobilize international forces to close the border.

GRABER: I mentioned earlier that I heard down in Brazil about people profiting from illegal logging, that it’s basically a crime network similar to drugs. I know you work in Africa as well as Asia – what similarities have you seen there?

ALLEY: I would say, in our experience, whoever is doing it, whether it’s a guerrilla group or a criminal gang, or even people connected to the government – and it very often is that – they are robbing the state’s resources. So they need all of the networks that criminal gangs have to maintain that operation. Which makes looking at illegal logging, especially for local people in those countries, extremely dangerous. And it goes hand in hand very often with the drug trade, with the arms trade, and we’ve looked particularly at the timber trade funding conflicts. And then you’re linking up with the Russia mafia, Ukranian mafia, and it’s a very nasty business.

CURWOOD: And I imagine they don’t want you poking around in this, Patrick. If these are criminal enterprises, as you say, you must have had some pretty difficult experiences investigating and reporting this stuff. Anything you could share with us?

ALLEY: Yeah, I could give you a couple of examples. And I’d highlight the fact that we don’t go looking for trouble. But, for example, in the time that we we’re looking at the Khmer Rouge trade, we were always very conscious of the fact – we were on the Thai border, literally, maybe a kilometer or two away, you’d have a Khmer Rouge base. I remember going into a timber company which was quite a way off the main road in Thailand, so we were in quite a remote area. The nearest place, really, was the border where the Khmer Rouge were. And we were watching – we were filming, secretly, logs coming in on trucks from Khmer Rouge territory. And then the people in the logging camp realized that maybe we weren’t who we said we were, and they actually chased us out of there. So we had a little car chase on these dirt roads in Thailand.

And danger comes in different ways as well. I was doing an investigation in Harare, in Zimbabwe, a couple of years ago, looking at their links with the timber trade in Democratic Republic of Congo. What I was doing wasn’t particularly dangerous in itself. I was in town, I was asking questions, I wasn’t trying to pretend to be anyone else. But the day after myself and my colleague left, there were front page stories in the government press accusing us of being the British intelligence services. Now, had they caught us when we were there – we know what happens to spies – that might not have been nice.

CURWOOD: Now you say that there’s a lot of criminal enterprise involved here, but at the end of the day this is a human rights issue, as far as you’re concerned?

ALLEY: I guess the reason Global Witness began was to try and cross this nexus of environment and human rights. If you look at these situations – and you can pick Cambodia, or Cameron, or the Congo, or Liberia – you get different things in different places. But if you’ve got an illegal operation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if people try to look at that operation, say journalists or local people, and protest against it or document it, they do get intimidated. They do get shot at and they do get killed. That’s one side of it. Also, if there is illegal logging, it is, generally, by definition unsustainable logging. That has ecological effects which affects agriculture. So, very often, especially in tropical forests, you’re looking at terribly poor countries. People very often are dependent on the forests, and also farming. If the forests are destroyed they’ve only got farming, but the destruction of the forests affects their farming. And they get poorer and poorer and poorer. And that’s a challenge for all of us who are working on this issue.

GRABER: Patrick, you mentioned work you’ve been doing in Africa, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what are the conflicts that are being funded by this trade in timber.

ALLEY: Well, a really good example that we’ve been concentrating on for the last two years is Liberia. Where, as you probably know, the former president Charles Taylor held sway there since he won his civil war. He was responsible for fomenting regional unrest. He funded the infamous RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, responsible for the murder of thousands of people and the amputation of limbs of men, women, and children. The money that he used to fund them came from both the diamond trade, and when diamonds were sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, he focused on timber. And the timber trade provided the money for him to do that. And also the ships that were coming to take away the timber were bringing in arms. The equipment that the logging companies used to build the roads in the timber concessions were used to build roads that were strategically useful. And the logging company funded – the biggest company – a two and a half thousand strong militia, which was used to help the Liberian armed forces. You had, really, a whole civil war, which was affecting the lives of millions of people in west Africa, funded by timber.

CURWOOD: So how do you change that?

ALLEY: What we had to do in the case of Liberia -- it was too dangerous for us to actually go to Liberia because we’d made public comments and Charles Taylor had publicly highlighted our organization as a problem for him. But what we would do is we’d go to Guinea, to the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, the neighboring countries, and basically talk to everyone we could – whether it’s journalists, politicians, child soldiers, logging workers – and build up a picture. And when you start investigating like that, generally you’ll find that people start leaking information to you. So we were fortunate enough to obtain information belonging to the Ukrainian mafia showing the logging deals that they were doing and the arms they were supplying. And then you’ve got to work out, well, where do I use that? In this particular case, the United Nations Security Council had already got sanctions on various things against Liberia, including diamonds, but not timber. And so we focused our lobbying efforts on going to New York with the information over a period of two years, trying to get timber sanctions in. And, finally, in July, 2003 we succeeded in that. Not long after that, Charles Taylor was thrown from power. And there’s certainly a link there.

CURWOOD: We’re talking about illegal logging, and its environmental and human rights impact around the world. My guest is Patrick Alley, director of the London-based organization Global Witness. In just a minute we’ll be joined by a member of Greenpeace to talk about how that group’s work to expose illegal logging has led to some legal entanglements with the Bush administration. And we’ll also hear from a member of the Bush administration to hear about what it’s doing to control illegal logging. I’m Steve Curwood with Cynthia Graber. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded Internet service, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues, the Educational Foundation of America, for coverage of energy and climate change, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues, and the Wellborn Ecology Fund.

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Our topic is the trade in illegal timber that’s become an environmental nightmare in many of the world’s developing nations, and a source of funds for world conflicts. Our guest Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, is back with us. We’ll also speak to Scott Paul of Greenpeace about its exposés of illegal logging operations. John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, will also join us for the Bush administration’s viewpoint on illegal logging around the world.

First, Patrick, let me ask you this – what’s your next target? What’s, perhaps, the most urgent place for your work?

ALLEY: Democratic Republic of Congo.


ALLEY: Because it’s a country in a post-conflict situation. It’s very big. It has some of the richest forest reserves, not to mention other resources such as gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, you name it. The war that has killed over three million people in the last five years has been fought mainly over resources. And lots of businesses are dying to get in there to exploit those resources, and I think the international community, and certainly the Congolese government, are not really prepared enough for that onslaught. And I think there’s a danger that logging companies, for example, will get hold of concessions in areas, with the support of organizations like the Wold Bank, and I think it’s a really important issue to try and make sure that in that country, unlike many others, that the resources in a post-conflict situation are dealt with in a sensible way that actually helps the country and doesn’t act to its detriment.

CURWOOD: Patrick, thanks so much for taking this time with us.

ALLEY: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

CURWOOD: Patrick Alley is director of Global Witness. Joining me now is Scott Paul. He’s campaign coordinator of Greenpeace’s Forest Initiative.

PAUL: Hello, how are you?

CURWOOD: Good. I’m glad you can come on the show, and I want to ask you about Greenpeace and the critical role that you’ve played in telling the world about illegal mahogany coming out of Brazil. When did these illegal logging operations first get the attention of Greenpeace?

PAUL: Yeah, about three years ago, the Greenpeace office in Manaus, Brazil started really investigating and documenting the mahogany trade in Brazil. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of mahogany. What we did is we went out in the field, we checked government records, we tried to locate everywhere that the records show people are supposed to be logging. And really, after about a year, uncovered a system of gross illegalities, where no one was logging where they were supposed to be, we had fraudulent documentation, fraudulent transport papers. And in September, 2001, we gave that information to the Brazilian federal prosecutor. Shortly after that, the Brazilian government conducted a series of field investigations. And in October of 2001, the Brazilian government completely suspended their mahogany trade in an extremely, highly unprecedented move.

CURWOOD: There was a load of mahogany, I guess. You and some other Greenpeace members, I gather, boarded a boat off the coast of Miami you said contained illegal mahogany logs from Brazil. What happened?

PAUL: Yeah, back in April of 2002, a 1,000 foot cargo container ship came into the port of Miami carrying approximately 70 tons of mahogany. This shipment came in during the period when the Brazilian government still had a national moratorium on exports. So a little more than three miles off the coast of Florida, two Greenpeace activists boarded the APLJ with a banner reading “President Bush Stop Illegal Logging.”

CURWOOD: Now, you were part of that protest on the boat, as I understand.

PAUL: Yes, I was. I was arrested in that protest. The Coast Guard came out and all the Greenpeace vessels in the vicinity were rounded up and taken over to the Coast Guard dock. We spent the day on the dock and, ironically, most of the Coast Guard officials were telling us, you know, this will be cleared up in an hour. This will be cleared up in two hours. And we spent the weekend in the Miami federal penitentiary. On Monday morning we were released.

Eventually six people, including myself, were charged with a law from 1872. I’m one of the first people in over a hundred years to be convicted of this law, that has to do with sailor mongering. Basically, the law was put into place to make sure that brothels and bordellos were not enticing sailors that were coming into their facilities to run up large bills, and then they’d be unavailable to leave when the ship had to go.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, your organization was also named in this criminal indictment.

PAUL: Well, this is where it actually gets very interesting. The Miami protest, back in April of 2002, was a pretty standard Greenpeace protest – peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience. Fifteen months later the Bush administration has indicted Greenpeace as an organization under the same 1872 law. This is the first time in U.S. history -- going through the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, animal rights and right-to-life movements -- that the federal government has chosen to indict an organization for the activities of its supporters.

CURWOOD: What would happen if Greenpeace was convicted?

PAUL: Well, first of all there would be a ten thousand dollar fine. We could also lose our tax-exempt status, which is quite significant for a group like Greenpeace that does not take any money from corporations or does not take any money from any governments.

CURWOOD: If you’re convicted, how much could the government look at your activities?

PAUL: Well, we’d be placed on a five year probation, and the government would be able to, at its will, inspect our financial records, our membership roll, any other internal information that we have at any time. And stiffer penalties would be doled out for any subsequent Greenpeace protests. You know, jaywalking, what have you, would become quite serious at that point.

CURWOOD: This case is still under way. Where do things stand right now?

PAUL: Back on December 12th we had our first pretrial motions where we filed three motions, one to dismiss, because the 1872 law that we had been charged with does not actually fit. We filed a motion for dismissal. We also filed a motion because we want a jury trial. The government does not want to give us a jury trial. And then also the selective prosecution motion. The judge – we don’t know when he’ll be ruling on those particular motions. A trial date has been set, tentatively, for May of this year.

But we’ve had an awful lot of groups rally around us because this case is really much bigger than Greenpeace. The NAACP, the ACLU, People for the American Way, a lot of environmental groups, NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, etc., etc. They’ve really rallied to Greenpeace’s defense on this, because this really could send chilling first amendment effects if we are convicted.

CURWOOD: Scott, in a few minutes we’re going to hear from John Turner who’s the assistant secretary of state for the Oceans, International Environment, and Scientific Affairs. He’s going to talk about the President’s Initiative on Illegal Logging. What’s your opinion of that initiative?

PAUL: The United States has actually shown a lot of leadership on the issue of illegal logging. This pre-dates the current administration. The U.S. government is probably largely responsible for getting the issue of illegal logging on the international agenda. However, the Presidential Initiative on Illegal Logging, which the environmental community was very supportive of as it was being developed, Greenpeace is quite disappointed in this initiative. The issue is really 19 previously existing programs cobbled together, being called a new initiative. There is no new resources allocated to this.

Additionally, the initiative only focuses on illegal logging happening in other countries, and refuses to address the key question needed to get illegal logging under control -- and that is, the U.S. importation of forest products abroad. And it doesn’t even attempt to distinguish between forest products that were harvested responsibly, and forest products that were harvested in violation of laws. And the Presidential Initiative refuses to give the information to the public that they need in order to make that decision.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time with us. Scott Paul, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace’s Forest Initiative.

PAUL: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: International illegal logging has become such a cause for concern that George Bush has made it a top environmental priority. And the president has, indeed, announced a new initiative to help nations wipe out illegal logging within their borders. We’ve invited John Turner, assistant secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, to talk to us about the administration’s program. Hello, sir.

TURNER: Nice to visit with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Assistant Secretary Turner, while we were researching this issue, some of the groups that we talked to are concerned that they don’t feel that there’s anything new in the President’s Initiative, that it’s mostly existing programs grouped together. What new programs are planned for the future for this initiative?

TURNER: Well, it’s a lot of new efforts. Our efforts are going to be on the Amazon Basin, in the Congo Basin in Africa, southeast and southern Asia, and then we hope to turn to Eurasia and Eastern Europe. The approach has been to focus of good governance, help with laws, policies, training of people in country. Of course, we need their acceptance and their receptivity. Second, using American know-how and technology -- whether it’s remote sensing to track forests, a better way to track logs -- or in the marketplace, using the very powerful force of American markets as we recently did when we impounded several million dollars of mahogany coming out of South America, specifically Brazil. So, it’s a cooperative effort with a lot of U.S. agencies working with the private sector, the NGO community. And we’re getting cooperation and interest in a lot of countries around the world that are joining us in this.

CURWOOD: What in terms of finances are available for this? I’m thinking particularly of new money. This is a time of very tight budgets. I’m wondering what kind of resources you’re going to be able to add to the already existing initiatives we have around forests.

TURNER: Well, I know that always interests the press. But the ’04 budget, of course, still has not passed the Congress. In ’03, the expenditure by U.S. government was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 million. And what we’re doing is leveraging that with the NGO community, the private sector, foundations, and other governments.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you something from the perspective of a consumer. I recently bought a deck chair. It was made out of teak. And in this line of work I know that a lot of teak is harvested illegally. There was no way for me to tell, though, if the chair I bought came from appropriately or inappropriately harvested teak. What about having an initiative to tell people if the timber they’re getting is properly harvested?

TURNER: Well, it’s an excellent question, Steve. How do we know the piece of lumber we buy, or the coffee table, comes from a legitimate source? And it’s such a complicated issue from the remote area in the tropical forest all the way to the shelf in the marketplace. We’re certainly looking at making progress. We’ve got leaders like Home Depot that are committed to going the extra mile to see that their products are legally sourced, to international treaties where products that are especially endangered will be tracked with paperwork. But it’s a tough problem. And the NGO community, of course, has been working with the private sector on certification in certain countries. We’re certainly not there yet, but I think we need to give that kind of awareness and ways of tracking to the consumer.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time to talk with me today.

TURNER: Well, thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: John Turner is assistant secretary of state for Oceans, International Environment, and Scientific Affairs. For more information about illegal logging around the globe, and the consequences for the environment and human rights, go to our website – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.



Buying Timber and Wood Products


Global Witness

Forest Stewardship Council

U.S. Initiative Against Illegal Logging


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