On May 15, authorities in the northeastern province of Si Sa Ket in Thailand arrested two Cambodians and six Thai workers for illegally removing a large Siamese rosewood tree from an area designated as a wildlife sanctuary.
The eight men had taken the tree clean out of the ground and tried to persuade the Huai Sala Wildlife Sanctuary officers that they were replanting it elsewhere, according to a report filed by the Asian News Network.
But one of the Cambodian men eventually confessed to hiring the men for about $6,200, with the tree valued at more than $70,000.
Siamese rosewood has been described by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as the “world’s most trafficked wild product,” accounting for a third of all seizures by value between 2005 and 2014. Demand for it comes mainly from China, where it is made into luxury hongmu furniture.
The incident reveals that, despite the government-imposed lockdowns and worldwide economic stasis as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is still both the wherewithal to illegally harvest products from tropical forests and sufficient demand for those products. According to reporting carried out for Mongabay, similar situations are playing out throughout the tropics, with reports of increased activity in numerous countries in Asia and South America especially.
To date, there appears to be firm evidence of increased forest clearances in Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Madagascar, with more anecdotal reports emerging from Myanmar and Peru.
Higher rates of deforestation in Brazil have been widely reported, but this started well before the coronavirus crisis struck. The Brazilian Amazon lost more than 9,000 square kilometers (3,500 square miles) of forest cover during the year to March 2020, the highest annual recorded loss since 2008, according to Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.
Forest loss in April was up by 64 per cent for the same period in 2019, and totaled 1,200 km2 (463 mi2) for the first four months of the year, an increase of 55 per cent. “This includes deforestation in areas protected by law, such as the national parks Mapinguari, Campos Amazônicos, Juruena, and Acari,” WWF told Mongabay in a statement.
WWF added that, though the government had sent in the military to stop illegal deforestation, this was undermining the work of environmental agencies, including the federal environmental authority IBAMA.
“We believe this effort will be insufficient to protect the rainforest if the federal government continues to send signals that it is on the side of illegal land grabbers, miners and loggers.”
The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) told Mongabay there have been increasing rates of forest clearing to make way for oil palm plantations in eight separate areas of the Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra. It says this is happening in violation of both Indonesian laws and the zero-deforestation policies of major retail brands that buy palm oil from this part of the world.
“At the beginning of this year, there was a huge increase in machinery that companies have brought in,” RAN forest policy director Gemma Tillack said in an interview. “There have been increases in deforestation in the concessions of eight different companies for palm oil development.”
Any loss of forest could have an impact on Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans — all three of which are regarded as critically endangered by the IUCN — with the tiger population estimated at fewer than 400, and rhinos at fewer than 80. Habitat fragmentation exacerbates the severe threats these and other species face through increased risk of poaching and conflict with local communities.
Tillack said the increase in deforestation was also concerning because there had been a steady decline in the four or five years up until 2019. “This unexpected uptick threatens to undermine years of progress in uplifting the international status and conservation oversight of the Leuser Ecosystem,” she said.
How much of the increased activity has been specifically caused by the lockdown is open to question, but Øyvind Eggen, of the Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN), says he is certain there is a correlation.
“Where government and NGO presence is reduced, it clears the way for illegal activity,” he said in an interview. “We have reports of hundreds of miners coming in on boats on rivers, primarily in Brazil and Peru. Gold prices have increased because of the financial crisis, which is obviously a factor in this, but for the moment, we think that reduced law enforcement is more significant.”
Increased logging in the Prey Lang Wildlife Refuge in Cambodia has been extensively reported. There is evidence for this both from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland, which registered more than 22,000 alerts during the week of April 27, and from reports from the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN).
“We have observed transportation of timber in the forest,” said the PLCN’s Hoeun Sopheap in an email. “There have also been the Ministry of Environment reports which found 399 cases of illegal logging during 511 patrols in four months.”
According to the PLCN, the Cambodian government banned it from patrolling Prey Lang in February and this coincided with the spike in illegal activity.
“The reason that the government banned the PLCN from patrolling was because it didn’t want us to see the illegal logging activities and share this information publicly or with the media,” Sopheap said.
In Colombia, the Amazon Institute for Scientific Research (SINCHI) recorded nearly 13,000 hot points, indicating a higher risk of forest fires, during March — three times the more than 4,700 detected in March 2019. Hotspots don’t always indicate a forest fire, but according to scientists 93 per cent are later confirmed as being one.
Several fires occurred in Chiribiquete National Natural Park, which at 43,000 km2 (16,600 mi2) is the largest national park in Colombia and the world’s largest national park protecting tropical rainforest.
“Since Colombia went into lockdown in late March, monitoring flights by the armed forces that normally circle the region have significantly reduced,” WWF said in a statement. “This could allow armed groups to take advantage of this lack of environmental control and continue to clear the area for cattle, coca plantation or other crops, as long as quarantine measures persist.”
WWF representatives say their partner NGOs in Madagascar have reported to them an increase in harvesting of mangroves for charcoal production in the northwest of the country. Encroachments in other areas are also believed to have happened.
Again, the absence of enforcement and monitoring may be a factor in this, as is the suspension of economic activities, leaving “traditional farming and fishing communities no other choice than to exploit forests and mangroves to meet their most basic needs for food and fuel,” WWF said.
Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and WWF-Nepal have conducted a preliminary review of case data from 11 protected areas, and recorded a huge increase in illegal extraction of forest resources compared with the month before the lockdown began, with harvesting especially high in important tiger habitat areas.
More instances of illegal extraction, either timber or other forest products, were recorded in the one-month period immediately following the lockdown, the WWF-Nepal report says, than in almost the entire previous year — 514 as opposed to 483 in 11 months. In addition, the first 10 days of April saw a further 610 cases.
“This increased pressure puts ongoing restoration efforts across more than 1.3 million hectares of critical forests and decades of globally lauded conservation efforts at risk of derailment,” WWF told Mongabay in a statement.
In an interview with Mongabay, Alistair Monument, WWF’s lead on global forest practice, said: “The theory is that a lot of people are returning from India where they have been working to places such as the Terai [the lowland area of southern Nepal] and that has resulted in the increase in illegal logging and other activity. We believe there may other risks such as poaching, too.”
Wildlife known to have been poached include one Asian elephant, three gharials (a species of crocodile only found today in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and assessed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List,) and six musk deer taken in Sagarmatha National Park.
A report published in The Global New Light of Myanmar at the end of May said that 5,000 tonnes of illegal timber had been seized in the Sagaing region, in the north of the country, between October 2019 and April 2020, according to the forest department. An unnamed forest department official was quoted in the report as saying they had expected illegal timber extraction to decline because of the enforced lockdown, but it hasn’t.
According to the International Tropical Timber Organization’s (ITTO) Market Report for the second two weeks of May, the forest department for the Mandalay region seized 1,400 tonnes of illegal timber in the first five months of the year, including 400 tonnes of hardwoods.
RAN’s Gemma Tillack said major palm oil producers and brands now need to come to the fore and keep promises made last October about establishing a radar-monitoring system in collaboration with the World Resources Institute (WRI). Companies involved include Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. “Those companies clearing forest for new plantations need to be contacted by the companies doing the deals with them, by the mills who take their fruit, by the brands taking their products and told it’s not acceptable,” Tillack said.
The international police organisation Interpol confirmed in a statement sent to Mongabay that increased rates of illegal logging, and other activities including illegal mining and agricultural expansion, during the Covid-19 pandemic had taken place, “almost certainly a result of reduced law enforcement capacity to disrupt criminal activities” and other socioeconomic pressures such as increased unemployment and poverty that are driving people to exploit forest resources.
“An assessment conducted by Interpol has found capacity to be significantly reduced worldwide, with staff and budgetary resources either furloughed or reallocated to focus on policing matters directly related to the pandemic, including controlling the movement of people and securing the supply chain of relevant medical products,” the statement said.
The anticipated global economic recession is likely to hit many developing countries where the forestry sector contributes significantly to government revenue. “In these countries, it is likely that the overall rates of illegal logging will continue to increase, since the negative impacts of the pandemic on forestry law enforcement is likely to continue for many months and perhaps years,” Interpol said.
Most experts agree that this is a critical time for the way in which the global community tackles the environmental crisis. Øyvind Eggen of RFN said even if deforestation isn’t increasing by very much during the first stage of the crisis, he is very concerned about the long-term implications.
“First, it opens areas up for more illegal practices, with local communities out of desperation moving to more short-term use of natural resources,” Eggen said. “But you are also seeing attempts to deregulate business justified by Covid-19. So more importantly, perhaps, if the recovery becomes less green, that will have an impact for decades. The environment and rainforest protection have moved up the political agenda in recent years, but if they are not one of the top three or five issues in the recovery, we will have lost a lot for decades.”
His thoughts were echoed by Alexandra Reid, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) specializing in organised crime and policing issues, who said the economic downturn could have a number of impacts working in different directions.
On the one hand, it could reduce demand for timber, but it could also result in more demand for less sustainably harvested and illegal timber. “Illicit timber is so much cheaper [than that which has been legally harvested],” Reid said in an interview. “Going through the compliance procedures is very expensive.”
Statistics in recent Tropical Timber Market Reports reveal the other side of this story, suggesting the legal trade in tropical hardwoods is already declining. China’s imports of tropical hardwood logs, for example, fell by 26 per cent in volume (to 1.3 million cubic meters, or 46 million cubic feet) and 37 per cent in value (to $3.25 million) compared with the same period in 2019.
The volume of tropical hardwoods exported to China by the Solomon Islands fell by 54 per cent and by the Republic of the Congo by 45 per cent. Papua New Guinea was the largest supplier, with 39 per cent of the market share (and only a 7 per cent drop in actual quantity). Exports from Myanmar and Laos were also down steeply by 82 per cent and 59 per cent respectively.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.