The international police organization Interpol released a report today that highlights the scale of corruption in the global forestry sector as well as the importance of coordinating law enforcement efforts across national boundaries in order to protect forests.
According to the report, the cost of corruption in the global forestry sector is some $29 billion annually. Bribery is the most common form of forestry corruption, followed by fraud, abuse of office, extortion, cronyism, and nepotism.
“Criminal networks use corruption and the bribery of officials to establish ‘safe passage’ for the illegal movement of timber,” the report states. “Those criminal groups also exploit these routes to transport other illicit goods, such as drugs and firearms.”
A case study featured in the report provides an example of this corruption: The mayor of an “important timber trading city” in Peru who was recently arrested for his involvement in a drug trafficking ring. The mayor controlled a timber business that had built up a logistical network for bribing officials to move illegally harvested timber out of the country, which was then put to use by drug traffickers to smuggle cocaine through shipments of plywood.
Interpol says that a 13-country survey discovered an average of 250 cases of corruption in each country related to the forestry sector every year between 2009 and 2014. The culprits most likely to be involved in corruption in the forestry sector are government officials who work for Forestry Agencies, Interpol found, while officials from other government agencies, law enforcement officers, and logging company officials were also found to be “extensively involved” in corruption.
The report explains that the forestry sector is particularly vulnerable to corruption — defined as “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain” or “any course of action or failure to act by individuals or organizations, public or private, in violation of a duty or obligation under law or trust for profit or gain” — due to the fact that many forests, especially in the tropics, are located in jurisdictions with weak governance and poor regulatory regimes.
Citing the results of a recent study conducted in collaboration with the TREES project (Timber Regulation Enforcement to protect European Wood Sector from criminal infiltrations), Interpol has identified corruption as occurring most frequently at the point of harvest, or in about 50 percent of cases. Road transport accounted for another 23.1 percent of cases, and processing plants 26.9 percent. “In other words, corruption takes place in remote areas far from mainstream law enforcement efforts,” per the report.
Interpol notes in the report that studies over the last decade have repeatedly shown a strong correlation between levels of corruption, illegal logging, and deforestation rates.
Interpol launched Project LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests) in 2012 to counter various forestry crimes, including illegal logging and timber trafficking, as well as related crimes like corruption. The project involves collaboration between Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and provides a coordinated global response to organized and transnational crime in the forestry sector. Project LEAF has identified corruption as one of the main factors that facilitates forestry crime.
Under Project Leaf, Interpol issues international notices and alerts on behalf of member countries to request information on and warn of the movements and activities of people, vehicles, and vessels involved in forestry crime. A purple notice issued in August, for instance, was meant to disseminate information about an illegal timber trading operation involving four companies in Brazil, based on an investigation by the Brazilian Federal Police that had uncovered a technique employed by illegal timber traders in the country.
In the report, Interpol also recommends a number of measures countries can implement in order to reduce the risk of corruption in forestry operations. Recommendations include policy and legislative reforms in countries where forest laws and regulations are ambiguous or unclear; capacity-building across the entire law enforcement chain to build greater awareness of the negative impacts corruption has on the economy and the extent to which it facilitates other serious crimes; enhanced financial investigations to determine which government officials are living above their legitimate means and therefore may have received bribes; and adoption of Interpol’s secure communications network for anti-corruption investigators.
“By raising awareness and documenting current corruption practices as well as potential solutions, we empower law enforcement officers in the field,” Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said in a statement. “This increases the chances of criminals getting caught and is one of the greatest deterrents to corruption. An international, coordinated response is an essential part of the solution to combat the organized transnational criminal groups involved in forestry crime. Our collective goal must be to turn corruption into a high risk, low profit activity.”