Blog | May 8, 2014

How the logging industry tricked us into financing our own destruction

In 1876 a group of famous explorers gathered in Brussels for the inaugural meeting of the International African Association. Belgium’s King Leopold II delivered the opening address, claiming, “To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.” In the nineteenth century European rush for African resources, colonialism was cynically rationalised in moral terms, as a ‘civilising mission’. Leopold hoisted the Belgian flag in the Congo Free State in 1885, soon to become Belgian Congo. During this time he stripped the county of huge natural wealth, predominantly ivory and rubber, using slave labour that was characterised by killings, kidnappings, torture and imprisonment.

Published today, the 2014 Africa Progress Panel Report confirmed that Africa loses $US 20 billion a year from fishing and logging plunder alone, before even looking at corrupt mining concessions, other commodities or tax evasion. Now the old colonial looters have been joined by new economic powerhouses in China, South-East Asia and beyond. We no longer claim to civilise countries, we are instead ‘helping them to develop’, all the while stripping them of the natural resources we get rich on. In my recent TEDx talk, (above) I sought to unravel a myth that has many of us spell-bound – that chopping down tropical forests brings development – jobs and money – to poor but forest-rich countries.

The earth is 4.6 billion years old. If you scale that to 46 years, we have been here for four hours, and in that time we have destroyed well over half of the world’s forests. This destruction is accelerating, to the point that every minute, 50 football fields-worth of forest are lost, amounting to 1.2 pitches per second. Statistics like these are too easy to roll out – but actually witnessing this kind of devastation happen, and I have – is like a vision of hell that surpasses any apocalyptic end-of–the-world movie.

So why are so few people talking about it? Largely because we’ve been duped by the logging industry and development experts into thinking that our appetite for cheap tropical timber is not only natural, essential and sustainable, but that it also creates jobs and brings essential infrastructure like schools, hospitals and roads to some of the poorest communities in the world.

But the problem is that industrial logging in the tropics is not sustainable, and brings little or no development. Global Witness has repeatedly called for empirical evidence from the logging industry and aid agencies of the development benefits the industry brings, but it seems this evidence is lacking. Instead, our research has shown that the benefits promised to communities consistently fail to materialise, and traditional forest livelihoods vanish while a small elite grow rich. The economic model behind industrial-scale logging is inherently flawed, but the logging industry have succeeded in marketing it as an almost philanthropic venture, much like King Leopold did with his Congo Free State.

Logging companies haven’t achieved this on their own. They are supported by a diverse cast of facilitators, all of whom – consciously or otherwise – play their part in propping up a paradigm that is founded, like it was just over a century ago, on speed and greed.

Many of these facilitators have a clear stake in the fairy tale. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia – currently serving a 50 year sentence in the UK for war crimes – sold off Liberia’s forests to logging companies, using the proceeds to maintain his regime whilst funding regional conflicts. Two of the world’s leading traders in tropical timber, DLH and Danzer, bought Liberian timber in the full knowledge that this trade was bankrolling a conflict that claimed a quarter of a million lives. When this was finally subjected to UN Sanctions in 2003, DLH and Danzer walked away from the destruction that they had subsidised, their profits intact. Then, in an apparent change of heart, DLH and Danzer became the darlings of Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) responsible forest management certification scheme, whilst, respectively, continuing to buy illegal timber, and being linked to human rights abuses.

Conservation NGOs are complicit in this too. Through its Global Forest and Trade Network, for example, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works with, and is funded by, logging companies that pledge to follow voluntary sustainability and legality rules. Our report Pandering to the Loggers revealed how this banner of green logging has provided cover to companies including a UK timber merchant dealing in illegal timber, a Malaysia logging company clearing orangutan habitat inside WWF’s own ‘Heart of Borneo’ project, and Swiss-German Danzer, whose Congolese subsidiary had links to human rights abuses.

Until they condemn industrial logging in intact tropical forests, organisations like WWF and FSC are essential and willing pawns used by governments and logging companies to justify the disastrous experiment of industrial logging in the tropics.

This cast of facilitators includes some of the usual suspects too of course. Over the past two decades the World Bank and bilaterial aid donors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create jobs and revenue from ‘sustainable forest management’, but a cursory glance at some of the beneficiaries such as Cambodia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Liberia, reveals a trail of corruption, state looting and environmental destruction, with forest dependent populations not only not benefitting, but losing what they had.

Banks are the backbone of deforestation. The logging industry depends on their loans and financial services to kick-start operations and expand into new territory. HSBC, for example, made £100 million from logging companies in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, sidestepping its own green forest policy. Sarawak’s rulers and their cronies have plundered almost all of the state’s forest reserves, causing colossal environmental destruction and human rights abuses along the way.

The good news is that we can still save our forests. First though, we need to unpack and dispel the fictions sold to us by the logging industry. In place we need a new paradigm that sees forests not as a source of timber that can be liquidated for easy cash, but as a global lifeline in need of defence. Taking the profit out of plunder, as called for by the 2014 Africa Progress Panel Reportwill require reducing the demand for products that cause the destruction of tropical forests, an end to hidden subsidies for industrial logging in aid packages, and more stringent monitoring of private forest finance. This power must then be shifted back to forest communities, through the recognition of their land rights and the promotion of new models of forest management that are local, legitimate and truly sustainable.

Patrick Alley is a Director of Global Witness.


  • Patrick Alley

    Executive Director