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Lessons from the US: stopping illegal logging benefits both sides of politics

In the US Congress, it was hard to find an opponent to stopping illegal logging. CIFOR

As the Australia Parliament currently debates legislation to fight illegal logging, it’s worth considering the impact of the American and European laws on which the Australian effort is modelled. We may be in a unique position to do so: our long careers in the timber industry led both of us to be strong initiators and advocates of the US Lacey Act, which prohibits the import and trade of illegal wood and wood products.

Our philosophy, like most of the forest products industry, has been to conduct business and manage forests in a way that ensures the timber resources we rely upon will remain healthy and available for future generations.

However, these efforts are severely undermined by illegal loggers, who pillage national parks and protected areas around the world. Some employ slave and child labour, aid drug trafficking, fund terrorism, and spur violent conflict in communities. Illegal logging has devastated forests and wildlife and is a significant driver of the 30 million acres of tropical forest cleared every year.

Many of Australia’s closest neighbours, including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia, are struggling with some of the highest levels of illegal logging in the world. A recent example reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency reveals that the palm oil company PT Suryamas Cipta Perkasa illegally cleared a peat forest in central Borneo that contained substantial stands of the valuable hardwood species ramin, illegal to cut in Indonesia. This clearing destroyed the habitat for a population of 600 endangered Bornean orangutans, which - adding insult to injury - the company also paid people to hunt and kill. The livelihoods of the local residents were destroyed along with the forest. One-third of the community moved away.

Illegal logging destroys the habitat of threatened species and local people. CIFOR

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has prioritised halting illegal deforestation and has called upon importing countries to help by stating,

If you want to do good, let’s work together to sort out the timber industry. Other countries should stop fencing illegally felled timber.

While illegal logging is a lucrative business for organised criminal operations, it robs developing countries of an estimated $10 billion annually. Logging gangs evade paying fees for use of natural resources, smuggle timber out of forest nations, and do the high-value, job creating work of processing thousands of miles from the communities that depend on the forests for their livelihood. Illegal logging also undercuts companies who play by the rules, making it extremely difficult to compete in the global marketplace and resulting in job losses.

That’s why, in 2008, we worked with a broad coalition to advance the world’s first prohibition on the import and trade of illegal wood and wood products. Just as in Australia, environmental groups and the timber industry are often at each other’s throats. But when it comes to illegal logging, we’ve found common ground. Supporters of the Lacey Act include everyone from Greenpeace and the Sierra Club to Fortune 500 companies like International Paper and American’s largest landowner, Plum Creek, as well as smaller lumber businesses.

The logging industry and environmentalists are often at each other’s throats: this is something they can work together on. Still Wild Still Threatened

Extraordinarily, support for this law has, for the most part, crossed the partisan divide in America at one of the most politically polarised times in our history. The law emerged from a Bush administration initiative, but was supported as enthusiastically by left wing Democrats as conservative Republicans. Indeed, when the Lacey Act recently came under attack from a politically well-connected importer that was accused of violating it, the law’s opponents couldn’t muster the votes to undermine it.

Coming together to achieve this goal has cut global illegal logging by 22% - good news for orangutans, tigers, and communities that depend on forests. And it’s helping to protect the lungs of our planet which are increasingly important as we all face the challenges of climate change.

It’s also been good for the economy. In 2006, the US ran a $20.3 billion deficit with China in forest products; in 2010, the US ran a $600 million surplus. This dramatic reversal is due in large part to the 2008 Lacey Act forest provisions, which spurred many Chinese manufacturers to ask for low risk, legal and sustainable hardwoods. Our domestic resource fit that bill; so would Australia’s.

One country alone cannot fully stop illegal logging, which is driven by a complex global market. With the US Lacey Act, the EU Timber Regulation, and hopefully the Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill joining forces in blocking illegal wood imports, we can continue to make significant progress in curbing global forest crime.

This article was co-authored by Jameson S. French, the President and CEO of Northland Forest Products, Inc, based in New Hampshire, USA.

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