Open Case Studies Illegal Logging

Illegal Logging: Multi Billion Dollar Transactions Hiding in Plain Sight

Please review the video below: Does it serve as a suitable introduction to the topic?

There is no common agreed definition of illegal logging. Below are three perspectives of what constitutes illegal logging: firstly, that of The Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), an international policy analysis institute, secondly, from Global Witness, an international Rights NGO, and thirdly, from the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (INET), a Canadian Aboriginal NGO.

RIIA's definition of Illegal Logging is framed by the assertion of Nation-State sovereignty: ‘Illegal logging takes place when timber is harvested, transported, bought or sold in violation of national laws. The harvesting process itself may be illegal, including corrupt means to gain access to forests, extraction without permission from protected areas, cutting of protected species, or extraction of timber in excess of agreed limits. Illegalities may also occur during transport, including illegal processing and export, misdeclaration to Customs, and avoidance of taxes and other charges’[1].

Illegal logging of Rosewood in Madagascar: CC:BY:SA - Wikimedia

Global Witness (GW) scrutinizes Illegal Logging through Independent Forest Monitoring (IFM) of national regulatory (control) operations[2]. GW can conduct IFM of logging on State-issued concessions and log trading along the commodity trading chain, from forest floor to final destination.

Many Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) approach Illegal Logging as logging that takes place on their claimed customary lands, without first obtaining their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)[3] and without equitable Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) from logging. Many IPLCs claim pre-existing rights to the forestlands that are claimed and administered as Crown Forests or State / Public Forests. For those IPLCs, the State-issued logging concessions represent a violation of Native Title, and an illegality.

Illegal logging in Wamena, Papua, Indonesia CC BY 2.0 - Flickr photo by Danumurthri Mahendra

The Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (INET) provides an Aboriginal Canadian assertion of State-enabled illegal logging.

Arthur Manuel, member of the Secwepemc First Nation of Canada, is the Chairperson of INET[4]. Arthur Manuel campaigns against an example of Illegal Logging in British Columbia and Canada in provincial, national and international forums. INET maintains that softwood lumber from British Columbia, being sold in the United States, is unfairly subsidized, because the Province of British Columbia has not internalized the costs of Aboriginal (Native) Title property interests and environmental measures to protect Aboriginal land-uses in the price of the B.C. forest products.

Other Aboriginal representative groups have taken the same position, including the Assembly of First Nations[5] and The Grand Council of the Crees[6].

INET has taken its assertion, that global trade pacts need to promote and protect indigenous proprietary interests, to international trade forums like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Illegal logging is worth US$ 3,500-10,000 million (US$ 3.5-10 billion dollars) annually. Interpol has the higher estimate[7]. Most forested countries have some degree of illegal logging, in some countries illegal logging is much larger than the legal business (Alison Hoare at RIIA 2015 for table of researched countries). Major players also involved in other global criminalities – drug smuggling, gun running, people trafficking[8].

A problem since ancient times, mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh (in Assyrian cuneiform on clay tablets about 4000 years ago). Takes place in relatively remote areas, is relatively difficult to detect, products cannot easily be separated from legal logging. There are multiple beneficiaries of illegal logging, from producers to consumers all along the market chain, enjoying the lower financial costs of the wood and neglecting the higher economic costs. Environmental, fiscal and social costs are socialised (everyone pays) while benefits are privatised. There are multiple losers, when environmental damage in uncontrolled illegal logging is ignored or paid by society at large. Social costs are invariably high: social cohesion is disrupted, criminals benefit, the rule of law is undermined, quality of governance is reduced and subverted.

Profit margins can be so gigantic that bribes can easily be paid to anyone who objects[9]. Tropical timbers deliver US$ 40/m3 (cubic metre) to the tree feller, cost US$ 80/m3 at the roadside and US$ 120/m3 containerised at shipside, are declared for Customs taxes paid at US$ 150/m3 and are valued at import for China Customs at US$ 900-1000/m3 for delivery to factories for conversion into luxury furniture and flooring. The log trader has made 100-300 per cent profit before the outward-bound ship even leaves the dockside[10]. Hence assassination of government Ministers and forest conservation staff if they get in the way of this business.

Unjust laws and selective (biased) application of laws may make illegal the traditional uses of forest resources. It is common for central governments to award logging licences (concessions) to private enterprises to harvest from officially declared State Forests. These State Forests may be superimposed on the customary lands of traditional and indigenous peoples, by fiat under eminent domain. When the local people exert their traditional rights, they risk conflict with the private enterprises licensed by government to harvest from the same lands. Under international law and UN human rights conventions, the rights of the local people take precedence but local government may ignore those rights and may instead prosecute and imprison the local people.

Historical Context

  • Who claims ownership of the forests in the region or country where you are located?

When / what are the date(s) when that ownership was asserted?

Are there other constituency groups who claim ownership or rights to those forests? If yes, name them.

How are those constituency groups contesting the claims of the owners designated as legal by governmental authority?

Give an example of illegal logging in the forests in the region or country where you are located?

Where can you find an example of a possible output from illegal logging in your dorm room / apartment? Describe the chain of custody and legality verification claims.

How did the illegal logging problem develop? Describe similar or related historical problems.


Questions for students to consider

What does the phrase ‘Nature’s Bounty’ mean?

What does ‘fall-down’ mean in terms of logging in Canada?

What are the consequences for an ecosystem when selective illegal logging removes all the seed-bearing trees of specific commercially-desirable species?

What are the consequences for an ecosystem when ‘Nature’s Bounty’ is liquidated or degraded through illegal logging?

What are the arguments used to justify clearcut logging?

What does ‘variable retention’ mean in reference to logging in Canada?

What are the consequences of ‘variable retention’ for ecosystem resilience?


  • Political

Illegal loggers and log traders rely on their own smart staff or their cronies in government agencies who can devise ways of evading the government laws and regulations and administrative procedures related to logging and log trading. In many countries of the global South, external consultants engaged by the World Bank and other donor countries probably drafted the laws. Those laws may be difficult to find, and hardly anybody refers to them . So illegal loggers and log traders benefit from stakeholders’ lack of knowledge of laws, policies, regulations and procedures.

Describe: governmental jurisdiction over this issue; dilemmas for lawmakers; current laws/precedents related to the problem


  • The revenue losses to poor developing countries from under-declaration of exports are a major component of all illegal financial flows (IFF)[11]. In just one small country, estimated IFF in 2014 were equivalent to one quarter of the country’s GDP, and a large chunk of that IFF came from under-declared timber log exports[12].

Global industrial wood production of logs was about 2,052 million m3 in 2014, with exports of 135 million m3 declared at US$ 19,000 million (average of US$ 138/m3). Of 273 million m3 of tropical timber logs, 20 million m3 declared at US$ 7,000 million were exported (average of US$ 353/m3). The main tropical producers were Indonesia with 63 million m3, India with 44 million m3, Brazil and Malaysia each about 31 million m3. About 60 per cent of production was illegal in India, more than 50 per cent in Brazil and 35 per cent in Malaysia. More excitingly, Congo, Ghana and Papua New Guinea each rated 70, Laos 80 and the Democratic Republic of Congo more than 90 per cent illegal [13]. So the illegal tropical timber log trade in 2014 was worth around US$ 3500 million, probably very much more. No wonder the major criminal gangs are attracted to participate in this business[14].

With such huge profit margins, around US$ 200/m3 before the shipping containers leave the port of origin, the illegal logger or log trader can easily afford to bribe anyone -- from chainsaw logger on the forest floor, to community forestry association president who will 'rent' the requisite paper documents necessary to 'launder' the log shipment, to the forest wardens and forest guards at checkpoints along the route to the port, to the Customs and Trade officials at dockside, and so on.

So what is driving this illegal trade? A major influence is the desire in Northern countries for cheap consumer products[15]. We like cheap plywood and composite boards and doors and window frames. We enjoy beautifully hand-carved furniture made from highly-coloured tropical timbers. We put up vast numbers of pale-timbered shelves derived from Siberian forests. We prize giant boardroom tables and impact-resistant patterned wood floors in hard, heavy and very-slow-growing timber. At current rates, the tropical ‘red woods’ used to make hong mu furniture in China[16] and to panel the board rooms of US conglomerates with mahogany[17] will be exhausted in a decade.


Three-quarters of the world’s forests are claimed as State-owned and -administered forests. However, long before Nation-States came into existence, many of those forests were the homelands of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ITPs) who continue to lay claim to their inherent rights to their lands, territories and resources (LTR). Traditional- or Local Communities also assert rights to forestlands, based on their dependence on forestlands for principally livelihood or subsistence reasons but they do not have the same length of association with particular forests as ITPs do.

Some questions that students might consider

  • What are the consequences of corruption on forest-dependent communities?
  • What are the consequences of illegal logging on the legitimate businesses that have to compete with illegal logging?
  • What are the consequences of illegal logging on the national forestry agency and/or other agencies, like the phytosanitary department, the Customs and Trade agency?
  • What are the consequences of illegal logging on consumers who purchase the products of illegal logging?
  • Categorize the social groups which are affected by illegal logging.
  • Explain how the negative impacts can be minimized.


For many Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs), their cultural practices and spiritual beliefs are inextricably associated with ancestral forests. Their origin narratives (‘creation myths) and other literatures are rooted in specific lands and territories, sometimes referred to in the literature as sacred or sacralised forests. In the cases where IPLCs are located in frontier regions, far from arterial roads or navigable rivers, their claimed lands, territories and resources (LTR) are protected, whether those LTRs are legally recognized by the Nation-State or not. However, as resource extractive activities continue to expand into the LTR of IPLCs, culturally significant forests are increasingly under threat.

Here is a link to a 5-minute video -- 'An Amazon tribe's deadly fight to save its land from logging' --

  • Describe the consequences for a named Indigenous People or Local Community when their rights of ownership or access to that forest homeland are denied by a legal owner?
  • Describe the consequences for a named Indigenous People or Local Community when their forest homeland is degraded or destroyed through illegal logging?
  • Describe a cultural or spiritual practice of a named Indigenous People or Local Community that is dependent on access to a forest or forest product?
  • Describe a narrative of a named Indigenous People or Local Community that is related to a forest homeland?
  • Case study references
  1. The Royal Institute of International Affairs,
  2. Young, David. 2005 A Guide to Independent Forest Monitoring. London: Global Witness.
  3. Mahanty, S. & McDermott, C.L., 2013. How does “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC) impact social equity? Lessons from mining and forestry and their implications for REDD+. Land Use Policy, 35, pp.406–416.
  8. Palmer, J. 2015. Forestry Under the Table. BC Forest Professional.
  9. Mackenzie, Catherine A. (2006) ‘Chinese takeaway! Forest governance in Zambezia, Mozambique’. Maputo, Mozambique: Fórum das Organizações Não Governmentais da Zambézia (FONGZA). Pp.99.
  10. Bulkan, Janette (2012) ‘Through a glass, darkly – what’s wrong with an Indian coffee retailer exporting logs of prime furniture and flooring timber from Guyana instead of local processing for added value?’. Series of six articles in Stabroek News between April 16 and May 11, 2012. Consolidated by REDD Monitor,
  11. Kar, Dev and Joseph Spanjers (2014) ‘Illicit financial flows from developing countries 2003-2012’. Washington DC; Global Financial Integrity. Pp.68
  12. Bulkan, Janette (2015) ‘Transfer pricing in log exports is a good example of why forensic audits in the natural resources sector are urgently needed’. Georgetown, Guyana; Stabroek News, 29 June 2015,
  13. ITTO (2015) ‘Biennial review and assessment of the world timber situation 2013-2014’. Yokohama, Japan; International Tropical Timber Organization
  14. Nelleman, Christian and INTERPOL (eds. 2012). Green carbon, black trade: illegal logging, tax fraud and laundering in the world’s tropical forests: a rapid response assessment. Arendal, Norway; United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, and INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme. Pp.67
  15. EIA (2013) ‘Liquidating the forests: hardwood flooring, organized crime and the world’s last Siberian tigers’. Washington DC and London; Environmental Investigation Agency. Pp.64
  16. Global Witness (2015) ‘The cost of luxury: Cambodia’s illegal trade in precious wood with China’. London: Global Witness. Pp.32
  17. Reuters (2013) Free trade pacts target illegal timber exports’,
  • Additional resources
  • How would a forest conservationist approach the problem outlined in this case study, and what are some responses they might offer?
  • What elements of the case would they be most likely to focus on and why?
  • What kinds of questions would they ask?
  • What kinds of disciplinary approaches or methodology might they use?
  • In answering these questions, draw from existing literature from this discipline where possible, considering especially how similar problems have been approached.

Teaching Resources

  • How might an instructor in Forestry incorporate this case study into their course readings, discussions, and assignments?

There are probably three levels of analysis that would follow:

  1. The fact that in the nation-state the natural resources are invariably vested in the Crown/State unless certain concessions are made - so the question of "state enabled illegal logging" on traditional lands is one that involves claims to sovereignty and native title rights that may not be acknowledged by the State/Crown. See The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (India)
  2. The global dimension of illegal trade (International treaties and conventions) - so we could consider what international measures exist for the preservation of forests and the rights of the Indigenous and Tribal People (ITP) who rely upon this resource. Identify the specific international conventions/treaties (e.g. CITES applies to timber) but then this opens up the fact that such measures are invariably not enforceable and not binding on parties which are not signatories to the convention
  3. ITP rights - the importance of cultural rights and connection with forests - develop the point of unjust laws that fail to recognize and protect the unique relationship to the land - beyond the commercial and economic. How can forests and forest rights be emphasized as part of the 'bundle of rights' of ITP at law. Important also to consider the domestic and international aspects of Free Prior Informed Consent - what does it really mean (if anything)?
  • What elements of the case would they be most likely to focus on and why?

Probably focus on the failure of the legal systems (national and international) to acknowledge ITP. The weakness of existing mechanisms and concepts such as FPIC (Free Prior Informed Consent)

  • What kinds of questions would they ask?

At the international level - what safeguards or protections exist? Are they effective? Reasons for this? At the domestic level - what provisions for ITPs ownership or recognition? Do any confer a benefit that can be commercial or economic or only usufructuary? What avenues could ITP follow to try to enforce protection of their rights? Do they have 'standing' as against the State-enabled illegal logging?

  • What kinds of disciplinary approaches or methodology might they use?

Access to statute, case law and policy at the national level and then review and evaluation of the relevant international treaties and conventions.

  • In answering these questions, draw from existing literature from this discipline where possible, considering especially how similar problems have been approached.

Teaching Resources

  • How might an instructor in XX incorporate this case study into their course readings, discussions, and assignments?
  • As an economist, I have trouble putting the two key definitions of “illegal” logging together, namely the RIIA’s definition and the one pertaining to indigenous peoples. The RIIA one is linked to ineffective, or non-existent property rights, be these rights private or public. This is referred to by economists as the “common pool” problem –resource that are open to all. “Common pool” conditions have been known by economists for over 60 years as leading to resource overexploitation and economic waste. World capture fishery resources are often seen as the classic example of “common pool” and its effects. The problem of global warming can also be seen as a “common pool” problem. What is needed is to find ways of making property rights effective -a task, which may prove to be formidable. The indigenous peoples’ definition is not about resources being “common pool”. It is rather about the claim that existing laws, the existing property rights, which may b an economist, I am unable to comment, because this is a matter to be settled by the courts.(Gordon Price).

Teaching Resources

  • How might an instructor in Forestry incorporate this case study into their course readings, discussions, and assignments?