The big picture

This section provides context to stories that concern the EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan. It explains why forests matter and why illegal logging persists, then introduces the economic, social and environmental consequences of illegal logging.


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Why forests matter

Forests provide livelihoods for more than 1.6 billion people. They supply global markets with a wide range of goods – from timber, to cancer drugs, to paper. They harbour most of the world’s species of plants and animals and they regulate water supplies and local weather. They also play a crucial role in the global climate by absorbing and storing carbon. 

Credit: François Reuter

Why illegal logging persists


In our globalised world, forests are all about business. More than half of all people live in towns and cities far from the remaining natural forests, but through their purchases they can be complicit in forest destruction. FLEGT addresses the problem by creating incentives for trade in legal timber and disincentives for trade in illegal timber. See T for trade.

Big money 

The international police organisation INTERPOL estimates that the trade in illegally harvested timber is worth US$30-100 billion annually. For decades, illegal logging has been a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. FLEGT addresses this by getting stakeholders together to define what constitutes legal timber as well as ways to guarantee legality. It is a thorough and therefore lengthy process but at the end of it, legal traders can expect a higher price for their goods and governments receive the taxes and revenue they are owed.

Weak governance 

The forest sector of many timber-exporting countries is marked by a lack of transparency, accountability and participation. FLEGT addresses this by promoting multistakeholder participation in forest sector decisions and enabling stakeholders to identify governance reforms necessary to ensure forests can be managed fairly and sustainably. FLEGT activities also clarify roles and responsibilities, and provide regulatory and independent oversight to ensure accountability in the forest sector. See G for governance.

Questions of legality

Illegal logging cannot be halted by simply enforcing the law. In some countries a lack of legislative clarity hinders the ability of companies to conform to the law and of authorities to enforce the law. Laws can be numerous, outdated, confusing and even contradictory. FLEGT addresses this by encouraging countries to negotiate Voluntary Partnership Agreements with the EU. Part of such agreements is a process for stakeholders in timber-exporting countries to agree to clear definitions of legality that are effective and practical to enforce. Some partner countries also use their agreement with the EU to address issues of land and tree tenure. See L for law and Support to timber-producing countries.

Capacity gaps

Many countries lack the systems, skills and personnel needed, across government, the private sector and civil society, to develop and implement activities to root out illegal logging. FLEGT addresses this by providing support to timber-exporting countries and to stakeholder groups within those countries. See Promoting trade in legal timber products.

Uneven markets

Before FLEGT, markets were not scrutinising their supply chains for legality. Through FLEGT, the EU introduced a regulation that made the EU market more stringent. Rising demand for timber products in markets that are less stringent than the EU about legality has diluted the effect of efforts by the EU and other progressive markets to curb trade in illegal wood. FLEGT addresses this by engaging other markets, such as China and Japan to promote initiatives there that align well with FLEGT. See Beyond FLEGT.

Tesso Nilo, Indonesia

Credit: Flore de Preneuf, PROFOR

Consequences of illegal logging

Illegal logging has serious economic, environmental and social consequences. Media attention has focused on the harm it does to rainforests and the endangered species that inhabit them, but has focused less on the other impacts.

Countries rich in forests but poor in forest management too often find themselves locked in cycles of poverty and corruption. The economic benefits that legal sustainable logging could bring to communities, small companies and state coffers are stolen for short-term gain. Anti-social and corrupt behaviour is rewarded; defence of the forest is repaid with violence and even murder. The many and fairly distributed benefits of sustainably managed forests – regular and long-term jobs and income, funds for development, crops and medicine – are sacrificed for a cut-and-run economy and are sometimes lost forever.

Illegal logging robs countries of revenue

Illegal loggers avoid paying fees and taxes. In 2006, the World Bank said illegal logging of public lands in developing countries causes estimated losses in assets and revenue in excess of US$10 billion a year, with another US$5 billion in revenue lost each year through tax evasion and loss of royalties on legal logging. This prevents governments from investing in their forest sectors and pursuing other development goals.

Illegal logging harms legitimate businesses

Illegal timber is cheaper than legal timber because it is cheaper to produce wood when you don’t pay the fees and taxes. Illegal timber therefore competes unfairly with legal timber. This depresses market prices and makes it harder for legitimate businesses to survive in both producer and consumer countries.

Illegal logging undermines the rule of law

The vast sums of money that illegal logging delivers into the hands of unscrupulous people can spread through society as a corrupting force. When judges, police and customs officers become part of the problem, people lose faith in the rule of law.

Illegal logging threatens vulnerable forest-dependent communities

In many timber producing countries, communities are losing access to the forests upon which they depend. This makes them particularly vulnerable to illegal loggers who gain access to these forests, with corresponding repression, deforestation and human rights violations. If a community loses access to the forest, they may also lose access to their culture, religion, medicine and main sources of nutrition. 

Illegal logging breeds bloodshed

Across the world community members, environmental activists and journalists have been murdered for opposing or simply reporting on illegal logging.

Illegal logging has fuelled war

In tragic cases, such as in Cambodia, Liberia and Myanmar, the profits of illegal logging have financed devastating armed conflicts. The world knows something of “blood diamonds” from Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio. But what does it know of Liberia’s Charles Taylor and his blood timber? Or the Myanmar Army’s fight for territory and the last wild teak trees?