From Liberia to America, We Must Stop Illegal Logging | Commentary

Posted October 2, 2014 at 5:09pm

Around the world, illegal logging threatens communities and drives deforestation. Every second, an area of forest the size of a football field disappears due to illegal logging. In the United States, imports of illegally logged wood and wood products undercut American companies and threaten local jobs. As activists in Liberia, a country that produces timber and wood products, and the United States, a leading consumer of wood products, we are calling on Congress and the Obama administration to crack down on the illegal timber trade by fully funding and fully enforcing the Lacey Act, a landmark conservation law that prohibits the import of illegally harvested wood products.

Up to 30 percent of the wood traded internationally has been harvested illegally, with many tropical countries facing higher rates of illegally-harvested timber exports. Illegal logging deprives developing countries of up to $15 billion in tax revenue annually, instead often funding organized crime. At the same time, the workers involved face unsafe working conditions and human rights abuses. In the United States, illegally sourced wood products undercut prices of legally made U.S. counterparts, costing American companies that follow the rules up to $1 billion annually. By driving deforestation, illegal logging also contributes to climate disruption. Deforestation accounts for as much as 17 percent of global carbon pollution — roughly 50 percent more than the entire world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. In other words, it imperils workers and the economy in the U.S. and abroad and the safety of families and communities worldwide.

Liberia, though only slightly larger than Tennessee, contains some of Africa’s largest stretches of forest, much of which is threatened by illegal logging and palm oil development. In recent years, illegal logging played a major role in Liberia’s civil war, with proceeds going to fund Charles Taylor’s brutal dictatorship. Although reforms have been aimed at the timber trade, corruption and mismanagement remain. In the years following Taylor’s dictatorship, more than half of Liberia’s forests were awarded to timber and mining companies through no-bid contracts, often evading environmental laws. Due to widespread opposition, these contracts were revoked in 2013; however, new concessions may soon be granted.

Today, many Liberian communities and forests are threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. Demand for palm oil, an edible vegetable oil, is expanding rapidly and is now found in roughly half the packaged products in U.S. grocery stores. Driven by large multinational corporations, palm oil plantations often encroach on communities and clear cut forests that those communities depend on.

Traditionally, countries have tried to fight illegal logging by stopping the harvesting of timber. However, this is only half the battle. Illegal logging is driven by strong demand for wood products, making laws in consumer countries critical. Thankfully, the United States is leading the charge in addressing the consumption of illegally-harvested wood products. In 2008, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, Congress passed amendments to the Lacey Act that prohibited the importation of illegally harvested timber and wood products, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Now, companies must identify the species and origin of wood products they import, with those who knowingly import illegally-sourced wood products face steep fines.

Since its enactment, this historic piece of legislation has shown a strong track record of success. Many companies are working hard to make sure their supply chains include sustainably sourced — and legally harvested — timber. However, laggards remain. A recent investigation by Greenpeace tracked shipments of illegally harvested wood from Brazil to companies in the United States, European Union and Israel — including Lumber Liquidators, the largest hardwood flooring retailer in the United States.

The United States Congress has an opportunity to lead the fight against illegal logging around the globe by fully funding enforcement of the Lacey Act. For less than one-tenth the cost of a Boeing 747, Congress can increase our ability to stop shipments of illegally harvested wood products. With increased funding, Congress can modernize the declarations process for imported wood products, train a new class of field agents, and increase international outreach.

Properly implementing the Lacey Act will have positive impacts on timber-producing countries. In Liberia for example, companies involved in illegal logging will be forced to change their practices if they are to continue accessing lucrative markets in the U.S. and Europe. Stopping illegal logging and holding companies accountable for importing illegally harvested wood products is critical to protecting our communities around the world, our climate and American jobs. The United States can continue to lead the world in fighting illegal logging. That’s why we are calling on the Obama administration to fully implement the Lacey Act.

Silas Siakor is director of the Sustainable Development Institute and Goldman Environmental Prize Winner.