By Megan Rowling
LONDON (AlertNet) - The first international INTERPOL operation to clamp down on illegal logging, which led to nearly 200 arrests and the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber in Latin America, is a breakthrough against a trade that is destroying forests and people's lives around the world, anti-corruption group Global Witness said on Wednesday.
INTERPOL, the world’s biggest international police organisation, said this week its officials had inspected and investigated vehicles, retail premises and individuals and watched ports and transport centres in 12 countries in Central and South America from September to November last year.
The operation resulted in the confiscation of more than 50,000 cubic metres of wood and related products worth around $8 million, as well as some 150 vehicles. Countries taking part reported 194 arrests, 118 individuals under investigation, and several cases of deportation, INTERPOL added.
"This is a major development in the fight against illegal logging, which is a much bigger global problem than most of us realise,” said Billy Kyte, forest campaigner at Global Witness, which investigates graft and conflict involving natural resources.
"Local people often get the blame, but they are usually not the real problem. Much more damage is done by big companies connected to business, political and criminal elites, who systematically skirt laws and regulations in order to destroy forests on an industrial scale," he added in a statement.
INTERPOL's operation involved law enforcement agencies in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. It was the start of a drive to help INTERPOL's 190 member countries combat illegal logging and forestry crime, the organisation said.
David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL's environmental crime programme, said the illegal timber trade "affects not only the health, security and quality of life of local forest-dependent communities, but also causes significant costs to governments in terms of lost economic revenue”. The trade is thought to be worth $30 billion to $100 billion annually, he added.
NEW EU TIMBER REGULATIONS
INTERPOL plans to use the intelligence gathered during the operation as a foundation for more "incisive actions" against illegal logging in partnership with member states, it said.
Because the illegal timber trade crosses national boundaries, police forces and regulators find it difficult to pursue outside their domestic jurisdiction. "Project Leaf" - a joint initiative involving INTERPOL and the U.N. Environment Programme with financial support from the Norwegian government - is helping to coordinate a global assault on illegal logging and organised forest crime.
Global Witness said the Latin American operation showed how illegal logging damaged forest-dependent communities and how murder and corruption increased as criminal groups moved into remote forest areas.
The illegal timber trade hampers efforts to stop deforestation and forest degradation, which also contribute to climate change, and are responsible for nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
“For too long, governments and international enforcement bodies have turned a blind eye to the illegality and corruption that lies behind much of what ends up on our shop floors and in our living rooms,” Kyte said.
The INTERPOL operation should be a "wake up call" for companies that import wood products, he said, as new EU timber regulations coming into force on March 3 make it an offence for companies to import illegally harvested wood.
Businesses will also be committing an offence if they do not check their supply chains to ensure they know where their timber came from and how it was obtained, according to Global Witness.