If a tree falls in the forest, do you care how it was cut down?
Few people wonder where the wood for their furniture, floors or doors came from or how it got there. And few would guess that one of the most illegally traded wild products in the world is a tree, rosewood (Dalbergie).
Rosewood is trafficked so widely that it is called “forest ivory”. Its rich reddish-brown wood is used to make furniture, flooring and musical instruments. However, many trees that produce them are threatened and protected internationally.
Rosewood is an extreme example of a larger problem. Globally, 15-30 percent of timber is harvested illegally. According to Interpol, the illegal timber trade is worth between $ 50 billion and $ 150 billion.
This complex problem will not be solved overnight. But I think the social sciences can help stem it by showing the damage that the illegal timber trade causes to humans and forests, and by stigmatizing the sale and purchase of contraband timber products.
The role of rules
My research uses the social sciences to address conservation issues such as wildlife trafficking and invasive species. I focus on the role of norms and rules, which guide human behavior by signaling whether an action is common or approved. When people or organizations know that doing something is unacceptable and punishable, they are more likely to refrain from doing it.
Today, many rules intended to protect against timber trafficking are not strict enough or poorly enforced. This indicates that illegal activity can occur with impunity, although some countries are tightening regulations in an attempt to limit the problem.
Illegal timber is estimated to account for 50 to 90 percent of the timber harvested in the Amazon, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Interpol estimates that 40 to 60 percent of timber exports from Indonesia, 25 percent from Russia and 70 percent from Gabon are illegal. In 2016, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimated that 90 percent of U.S. timber imports from Peru (PDF) came from illegal logging.
The majority of illegal logging takes place in the rainforest of the Amazon, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Recent studies show that illegal logging accounts for up to 50 to 90 percent of the total production of some key tropical forest countries.
North America is not exempt. Poachers target century-old cedars and redwoods in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
Illegal activities lower global timber prices by 7 to 16 percent, costing source countries up to $ 5 billion in lost annual revenues. This would suggest that governments have a significant incentive (PDF) to act. But weak regimes, corruption and callous agencies – especially in source countries – fail (PDF) to curb timber trafficking.
Improve the application
To protect forests and guide the use of wood, governments create rules. International treaties and trade regulations restrict timber imports based on quantity or species. National management plans, certification programs (PDF) and procurement policies (PDF) dictate how timber is to be harvested, bought and sold.
But the effectiveness of these rules often depends on sanctions that penalize the violators. Many source countries have little capacity to effectively monitor forests or enforce sanctions for illegal logging. This makes it easy for traffickers to avoid being caught.
Many source countries have little capacity to effectively monitor forests or enforce sanctions for illegal logging.
Countries with few or weak regulations also serve as transshipment points. For example, traffickers send timber from Papua New Guinea to countries like China that do not ban illegal timber. It is then processed and exported as a finished product to the United States.
Over the past decade, the United States has taken action to strengthen the rules and sanctions against illegal timber purchases. Notably, in 2008, Congress amended the Lacey Act, which prohibits illegal trade in wildlife, fish, and plants, to include timber.
Several high-profile sanctions followed. Lumber Liquidators was fined $ 13 million in 2011 for selling flooring made from illegal Russian wood. In 2015, Mexico arrested the Yacu Kallpa, a Peruvian ship carrying illegal timber bound for Houston. And at the end of 2017, the US trade representative blocked imports of timber from Peru.
But until countries of origin can effectively monitor and enforce laws against illegal harvesting, intercepting a single shipment does little. Importing countries, especially the United States, European Union countries and China, must also take action to reduce illegal timber production. This is where the social sciences can play a role.
Learn from wildlife trafficking
Timber trafficking has many parallels with the illegal trade in charismatic and endangered wildlife, such as pangolins, turtles and rhinos. Either way, the trade is extremely lucrative, and consumer demand is a major driver of the black market.
To reduce demand, many countries are using social science to prevent consumers from purchasing illegal wildlife. Social influence approaches try to convince us that peers engage or refrain from certain actions, such as recycling or reusing grocery bags. They can also help convince organizations that certain actions are inappropriate and against rules and standards.
For example, activists in China and Hong Kong have reduced pressure on endangered sharks by convincing elites and professionals through public awareness campaigns and political advocacy to eat less fin soup. shark. And in Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim clerics have declared fatwas against poaching of wildlife to signal social disapproval.
Using the powerful medium of religion and their role as public leaders, clerics aligned religious loyalty with existing rules against poaching. In doing so, they ease pressure on others and further stigmatize poaching and illegal shopping.
Manage consumer choices
Governments and businesses can use similar strategies to combat timber trafficking. They can educate consumers about the scale of the contraband trade and what products may be illegally exploited, just as ocean advocates work to prevent consumers from buying overfished fish.
Pocket guide published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help consumers choose sustainably caught fish.
Organizations exist to track, monitor and certify wood and wood products. But awareness is not enough. Stigmatizing or sanctioning the sale and purchase of illegal timber would be a useful additional step. For example, governments could destroy shipments of confiscated timber in the same way the United States and some African countries burn or crush confiscated ivory from slaughtered elephants.
Through events such as Arbor Day, many Americans develop a widespread warm glow towards trees and forests. Presenting contraband timber products as harmful and damaging can help shape these views into more focused and sustained opposition to illegal timber trafficking.