Illegal Logging Has Dropped Dramatically—Or Has It?

Tropenbos International/E.U. Chainsaw Milling Project

A new analysis suggests that illegal logging has declined 22% worldwide since 2002, thanks to stricter government policies and enforcement. The progress has spared some 17 million hectares of forest in Brazil, Indonesia, and Cameroon alone, according to a report released today by Chatham House, an international policy think tank in London. Some experts are skeptical of the estimates and conclusions, however.

The report examined trends in illegal logging in five major timber-producing nations, as well as imports by five other countries. By examining official government data, checking with local experts, and conducting various analyses, the authors—Sam Lawson of Chatham House and Larry MacFaul of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre—conclude that illegal logging has fallen in the past decade by 50% in Cameroon, by between 50% and 75% in the Brazilian Amazon, and by 75% in Indonesia. The situation seems to have worsened in Ghana, and no firm conclusions could be drawn about Malaysia, they add. By extrapolating from these countries, Lawson and MacFaul arrived at an estimated 22% drop globally. "We're very confident about our conclusions in general terms," says Lawson.

Other experts caution that measuring illegal logging is extremely difficult. "I worry about the robustness of the numbers," says Nadine Laporte of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. "The error bars are huge and they are not giving them."

The authors attribute most of the improvement to better governance and enforcement in timber-producing nations, although conceding that the global recession has likely curbed demand for wood. Lawson points out that the illegal logging started declining before the recession started and that the proportion of logging that is illegal has also fallen. The report was commissioned and paid for by the U.K. Department for International Development, which has funded efforts to curb illegal logging through government reform.

William Laurance of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, who has studied Amazonian deforestation, credits the Brazilian government with helping to decrease illegal logging there. But Arun Agrawal of the University of Michigan says he's skeptical of the new report's methods and its conclusions that improved governance has been a major force in decreasing illegal logging worldwide.

Everyone agrees that illegal logging remains a problem. Lawson and MacFaul estimate that 100 million cubic meters of timber were harvested illegally last year, and the activity is becoming harder to trace. China remains a huge market, turning the wood into furniture and other products, which are then exported. "China has become a black hole for the tropical timber market," says Laurance. Addressing these problems, the authors conclude, will require "a more profound overhaul of government policy and regulation than has so far occurred."