The first large-scale operation ever into illegal logging and forest crimes led to the arrest of over 200 people throughout Latin America and the seizure of millions of dollars worth of timber.
The Interpol-led maneuver, entitled Operation Lead, was undertaken in 12 countries in Central and South America under the auspices of the intergovernmental police organization’s Environmental Crime Programme. It seized around $8 million worth of illegally logged wood – the equivalent to some 2,000 truckloads of timber – as well as around 150 vehicles.
“Illegal logging and forestry crime ... affects not only the health, security and quality of life of local forest-dependent communities, but also causes significant costs to governments,” said David Higgins, Program Manager of the Environmental Crime Program at Interpol.
The logging bust was part of Interpol’s larger effort called Project Leaf, which aims to combat illegal logging and forest crimes especially in the tropical forests of the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, where the majority of these crimes occur.
Estimates from Interpol suggest that illegal logging accounts for 50 to 90 percent of the volume of forestry activities in key tropical countries, and for 15 to 30 percent of all wood traded globally. It is also estimated that illegal logging still occurs in many formally protected forests, especially in tropical countries.
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“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,” said Billy Kyte, forest campaigner at Global Witness, a environmental watchdog group. “Interpol’s firm action alongside the governments concerned is a big step in the right direction and must be followed up with swift enforcement and prosecutions.”
A number of governments around the globe have enacted strict laws against illegal logging, including the Lacey Act in the United States, which prohibits the trade of protected animals and plant species, and the EU’s new Timber Regulations, which in March will make it illegal for companies to import illegally harvested timber.
In Brazil, where environmental crimes have led to raised tensions and the murder of a number of activists, the country’s 1965 Forest Code laid out stipulations for Brazilian landowners to maintain a certain percentage of native forest on their lands as a legally protected reserve.
The majority of landowners in Latin America’s largest nation ignore these regulations and some have set up armed groups to silence activists opposed to their deforestation tactics. More than 1,150 rural activists have been slain in Brazil over the past 20 years, but fewer than 100 cases have gone to court since 1988, a survey by the Catholic Land Pastoral said.
Despite international attention on the issue, some growing nations have turned a blind eye to the illegal logging trade as their economies and housing stick expands.
While China’s foreign ministry denies the allegations, an international NGO claims that the country is one of the world’s largest importers of illegal wood, which it uses to feed the increasing taste for dining sets, hardwood floors, plywood and printer paper among its growing middle class.
The Environmental Investigation Agency claims the Chinese government has largely looked the other way when it comes to wood illegally harvested from Myanmar, Mozambique, Indonesia and other countries with weak law enforcement and rampant corruption.
“Illegal logging and the trade in stolen timber are among the most destructive environmental crimes occurring today and directly threaten the world’s vital forests,” the report said, according to The New York Times.