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Worldwide, forest crime is estimated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol to be worth US$30-100 billion annually, or 10-30% of the total global timber trade.

But illegal logging can be stopped and, as consumers, we can help.

Have you ever run your hand across a gleaming table top and wondered where its wood came from? Or asked whose job it was to cut the logs that became your new bookcase? Whose trees were used to produce that pencil you’re chewing on?

Consider for a moment all the people whose livelihoods, history and future center on the great forests that generate the timber we import every day.

In fact, the lives of about 1.6 billion people depend directly on forests that stretch across South America, Africa and Asia. Billions more of us also have a vested interest since trees produce oxygen that we breathe and absorb and store carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming and climate change.

But these forests, reaching from Indonesia to Honduras to Ghana, are under pressure from illegal logging. Worldwide, forest crime is estimated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol to be worth US$30-$100 billion annually, or 10-30% of the total global timber trade.

Local populations may be hit twice: not only are livelihoods and food security threatened when forests are illegally logged, but the damage to government treasuries from the taxes lost to crime (estimated by the World Bank to be between US$10 – $15 billion annually) undermines the social safety nets that could otherwise help the victims of these environmental crimes.

But illegal logging can be stopped, and as consumers we can help.

The European Union (EU) is one of the world’s largest single importers of wood, with more than 510 million people using or buying wood products every day.

That gives clout to the EU’s strategy to fight back against illegal logging through its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.

This plan offers economic incentives to timber-producing countries that join it, by smoothing the way for legal wood and related products to enter all 28 EU countries. It also safeguards consumers by setting standards for ensuring only legal timber is available in EU markets.

The ultimate aim of the FLEGT Action Plan is that a shopper in Italy, Germany or any of the EU member countries will be able to buy a wooden table or bookcase, confident that it is “clean,” or in other words, made from legally sourced timber. The easiest way to meet this requirement is through the conditions set out under Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between the EU and timber-producing countries.
Through its VPA, each country sets a legal definition based on its legislation for enforcement and means of monitoring to ensure that all products come from a system that is verified as legal. Private sector, civil society, and indigenous organizations are all involved in the VPA process and decision-making, a condition that is essential to FLEGT.

In a major step forward, this month, Indonesia and the EU agreed to issue the world’s first FLEGT license, which will help ensure that Indonesian timber arriving in the EU has been legally harvested, transported, processed and traded. Other countries will hopefully be close on Indonesia’s heels.

At the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), we are supporting the implementation of the EU’s FLEGT Action Plan by helping governments and the private sector in timber-producing countries improve their forest governance – or how people make and enforce decisions about the management, use and conservation of forests.

FAO helps them tackle root causes of illegal logging through better and more credible forest management – from applying rule of law and equal rights for stakeholders to greater transparency and accountability in decision-making. Given all the emerging environmental challenges related to global warming and meeting the needs of a growing global population, including through clearing forests to expand agricultural lands, countries are asking more questions as they develop forest management policies: Are our forests being used sustainably? Conserved for future generations? Whose voices are heard? And, are we maximizing this natural endowment for our population?

FAO’s FLEGT Programme has provided technical resources and support to over 200 projects in 40 countries, working alongside governments, partner organizations, local stakeholders and indigenous groups and peoples to stamp out illegal logging and encourage trade in timber that is legally sourced and properly managed.

In Peru, FAO supported a project to help indigenous people develop independent forest monitoring that bolsters law enforcement and increases transparency. In the Philippines, we are supporting the private sector to help create tracking systems to follow timber through to production to ensure the legality of final products. In Ghana, guidelines are ensuring local communities benefit from timber harvests, while civil society organizations in the Republic of the Congo are working on an electronic database to improve transparency in the industry.

Bottom line? Good forest management helps stamp out corruption and prevent the violent conflict over illegal logging that can occur in forests, ending a vicious cycle.

Initiatives like FLEGT, including similar legislation in Australia and the United States, have been making a significant difference, and the illegal timber trade has fallen by 22% since 2002.

And with the backing of millions of consumers and their governments, FLEGT will continue to help timber-producing countries make the most of their natural assets through smoother international trade flow and sound, fair forest management.

Robert Simpson is the manager of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Programme at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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