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An Inside Look at Latin America’s Illegal Logging – Part One

This post was co-authored with Eduardo Arenas Hernández Jr. and Ana Domínguez, who work for Reforestamos Mexico.

This is the first post in a two-part series on illegal logging in Latin America, with key insights coming from the Forest Legality Alliance’s recent event, “Legal Forest Products and International Trade: A Regional Perspective.” The first installment focuses on the root causes of Latin America’s illegal wood trade, while the second highlights potential solutions to the problem.

Mexico exports a significant amount of wood, especially to the United States. In fact, based on data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, the United States imported an estimated $1.4 billion worth of paper and timber products from Mexico in 2011.1

But Mexico—and Latin America as a whole—struggle when it comes to ensuring legality in forest activities. Illegal logging is documented throughout several Latin American nations and prevalent in some, and there is a risk of importing products to the United States that are tainted with illegality.

The Forest Legality Alliance

In August this year, the Forest Legality Alliance (FLA) and Reforestamos Mexico co-hosted the event “Legal Forest Products and International Trade: A Regional Perspective.” The event brought together more than 100 participants from private companies, civil society organizations, Mexican and U.S. government agencies, trade associations, and academia. The group focused on two key objectives: first, examining how legality issues and the forest products’ trade impacts Latin America’s small and medium-sized enterprises , particularly in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Colombia; and second, providing information to wood producers and exporters about forest products’ legality requirements in the international marketplace.

The event sparked useful conversation amongst a range of people with vested interests in forest products and forest protection. It also shed light on the causes of illegal logging, as well as potential ways this destructive practice can be curbed.

Illegal Logging in Latin America

México currently faces governance, market, and institutional challenges when it comes to regulating its forest products’ trade. Back in 2001, Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources estimated that more than half of the country’s reported industrial timber production happens illegally. The inter-regional trade of wood products in Latin America is not well understood. However, Mexico imports wood products from countries where illegality is a problem, and there are claims that some of this imported wood is processed and re-exported, spreading products tainted with illegality. Based on queries on trade data from Mexico’s Ministry of Economy, Mexico regularly imports parquet flooring, moldings, fiberboard, plywood, veneer, and sawn wood from China, Peru, Malaysia, Brazil, and Indonesia.

And Mexico isn’t alone. Illicit logging takes place in several other Latin American nations:

  • Honduras: A somewhat dated [2003 assessment]( PDF/(5) produccion_honduras_filippo_sp5_v9_web.pdf) by the Broadleaf Forest Management Network (REMBLAH in Spanish) estimated that from 1996 to 2000, between 75 to 85 percent of the country’s hardwood production and 30 to 50 percent of its pine production occurred illegally.

  • Guatemala: Another 2003 study estimated that between 25 and 35 percent of Guatemala’s annual commercial timber production was of illegal origin.2

  • Colombia: The World Bank estimated in 2006 that about 42 percent of the country’s timber production was of illegal origin, including wood harvested in national parks.

  • Perú: Various estimates of the amount of timber production from illegal origin range between 15 and 88 percent each year. Unlawful activities include harvesting in protected areas and indigenous territories, using forced labor in logging camps, and logging within forest concessions but without following the laws.

The region’s illegal logging is a serious problem that impacts a range of stakeholders, particularly forest communities and small and medium-size businesses, which rely on timber for their livelihoods and income. Illegal harvesting can also create conflicts between forest communities and loggers.

The Root of Latin America’s Illegal Logging Problem

Participants at the recent FLA event identified several underlying causes for Latin America’s illegal logging. Some drivers originate outside the forest sector, like the demand for cheap products, the extensive paperwork required to obtain logging permits, the corruption of some administrative processes, and complications in accessing credit to establish forest operations. Plus, data gaps limit government officials and other stakeholders from getting an accurate picture of the region’s forest products’ trade, preventing them from focusing and harmonizing actions to curb illegal activity.

Latin America’s logging problems are undeniably significant, but there are several ways to combat illicit activity. Tune in tomorrow for our second blog post in this series, which explores potential solutions to illegal logging in Latin America.

Read Part Two of this series.

  1. Estimated import value for timber and paper products (Harmonized Tariff Codes 44,48,49) based on the U.S. International Trade Commission data. The estimate does not include value of wooden finished products such as furniture or musical instruments. ↩︎

  2. Arjona, 2003. Primera aproximación a la cuantificación de la madera ilegal en Guatemala. UVG. Cited in, Instituto Nacional de Bosques, Gobierno de Guatemala. 2010. Plan de acción institucional para la prevención y reducción de la tala ilegal en Guatemala. INAB. ↩︎

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