by Department of Environmental Affairs

The Quiet Crime

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around, does it make a sound? Forestry crime is cutting swathes through the world's rain forests

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Forests are critical to the well-being of the planet, yet they are increasingly under threat as a result of large-scale logging – both legal and illegal.

Trees help to perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapour back into the atmosphere. They also absorb the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. Fewer forests means larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, which means the speed and severity of global warming increases.

And, according to National Geographic, 70% of Earth's land animals and plants live in forests. Chopping them down has a devastating impact on this biodiversity. Yet it continues.

Deforestation is defined as the permanent destruction of forests to make the land available for other uses. About 7.3 million hectares of forest, an area about the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Deforestation is clearing Earth's forests on a massive scale, National Geographic reports, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land. Forests still cover about 30% of the world's land area, but Earth's rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.

It says forests are cut down for many reasons, mostly related to money or to people's need to provide for their families – the biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture.

Forests are chopped down so there is more room to plant crops or for grazing; subsistence farmers log small areas as well. Large scale logging happens to supply the world's need for wood and paper products. And then there is urban sprawl – as more people move to cities and urban regions grow, more room is needed.

The impact of deforestation on the environment is huge, from driving climate change to loss of biodiversity and desertification as the tree canopy is removed and the soil dries out.

A solution is managing logging carefully and replacing old felled trees by replanting young trees. However, this is difficult to control as environmental crime escalates.

Forestry crimes, including corporate crimes and illegal logging, account for an estimated $51-$152-billion a year, according to The Rise of Environmental Crime, a rapid response assessment released by the UN Environment Programme and Interpol on the eve of World Environment Day in early June.

"Forestry crimes, from unregulated or illegal burning of charcoal to large-scale corporate crimes concerning timber, paper and pulp involving large-scale deforestation, have major bearings on global climate emissions, water reserves, desertification schemes and rainfall," it reported.

Forest crimes included rosewood smuggling, illegal logging, or laundering of illegal tropical timber through "fraud" plantations, laundering the timber through paper mills and palm oil plantation front companies, the report stated.

"In some countries as much as 90% of forests are leased as logging concessions. It is estimated that 62-86% of all suspected illegal tropical wood entering the EU and US arrives in the form of paper, pulp or wood chips, not as roundwood or sawnwood or furniture products."

Illegally harvested rosewood from West Africa is particularly hard hit, with a thriving market for the timber in Asia. It has resulted in Senegal requesting the inclusion of the species, Pterocarpus Erinaceus spp in CITES Appendix II. The proposal has been co-sponsored by Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, Togo and Chad.

But at the same time, a sustainable balance needs to be struck between people traditionally living in and around forests and conservation.

A survey by the Rainforest Foundation UK of 34 protected areas across Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo found that communities overwhelmingly associated protected areas with increased hardships as a result of the restriction of their livelihood activities, the Oxford Human Rights Hub reported in June.

It found that impoverished local people were disproportionately targeted by anti-poaching agents for subsistence hunting and gathering, which had led to malnutrition.

The practice of a top down approach – imposing ideas of conservation, protected areas and use of natural resources on local populations – does not benefit those communities. Involving people in management decisions and integrating customary conservation practices or traditional knowledge is increasingly being seen as a more workable solution.

In South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs runs its People and Parks programme with specific activities and processes that address issues at the interface between conservation and communities.

"We all work to promote and protect our country's resources, but also to highlight and implement the rights of communities affected by conservation processes," it says. "It is only when we achieve mutual harmony and agreement between all involved parties that we can rightfully call our foundation successful."

Further information:

The Rise of Environmental Crime
World Wildlife Crime
UNODC Wildlife and Forest Crime

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