The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the risk of illegal timber harvesting and trade.
Restrictions on movement, market changes, and other economic pressures make law enforcement more difficult.
Keeping timber production and trade legal is crucial to the protection of forests, sustainable livelihoods, and for building back better from COVID-19.
The COVID-19 health crisis risks becoming a forest crisis. Measures to contain the impact of the virus have led to restrictions on movement and huge economic pressures. In these challenging times, many people in rural areas have turned to forests to meet their needs and for alternative sources of income such as wood, wild foods, fodder, and fuel.
While forests often provide a safety net for vulnerable people in difficult times, the drive for new income sources also increases the likelihood of unscrupulous commercial activities such as illegal clearing of land for agriculture, overharvesting of timber, and other actions that lead to forest degradation and biodiversity loss. Under this type of pressure, land tenure conflicts tend to increase.
In the struggle to recover economically and socially from the pandemic, there is a danger that countries reduce focus on their commitment to legal and sustainable timber production, undoing achievements at the national and international levels that have taken years to reach. The restrictions on movement that have made work and trade more difficult have also made it more challenging to enforce regulations, with fewer law enforcement officers and independent forest monitors on the ground. This increases the potential for large-scale illegal activities within the forest sector, exploiting the situation.
We cannot afford an intensification of forest crime to become part of the COVID-19 tragedy.
The EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan and related legal commitments by countries have shown that trade can provide incentives for governance reforms that promote sustainable forest management (SFM) and economic development.
But countries need support to maintain their forward momentum on commitments on legal timber production and trade while also addressing people’s immediate needs for livelihoods. It is essential that tropical timber-producing countries continue to work in partnership with the private sector, with producer organizations, communities, and others to stamp out illegal timber trade, keeping commitments to sustainable and inclusive economic growth strong.
Since 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has participated in the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme, which supports the EU Action Plan by helping tropical timber-producing countries to improve forest governance in order to reduce, and eventually eliminate, illegal logging.
Currently the programme is working to enable partners to address the immediate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on trade, jobs, and livelihoods while upholding commitments to good governance, transparency, and sustainable development. This includes actions to strengthen independent forest monitoring in order to assess reported increases in forest crime and non-compliance triggered by the pandemic, and supporting e-commerce initiatives to help restart trade, particularly for micro-, small and medium-sized (MSMEs) enterprises committed to transparency and legality.
Tropical timber-producing countries can and should continue to strengthen regulatory frameworks, work with businesses and communities to modernize and formalize forest sectors, improve business practices, build capacities in sustainable forest management, and increase transparency, accountability, and broad participation in decision making that can affect the health of forests and the well-being of people who depend on them.
Doing all of the above contributes to many of the SDGs, including: SDG 8, which focuses on inclusive and sustainable growth, employment, and decent work; SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production; SDG 13 aiming to combat climate change; SDG 15 to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss; and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). All of these tie into other SDGs, such as those focused on the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger and malnutrition.
There can be no true recovery from the economic and environmental fallout of COVID-19 unless countries are able to build back better. We must support countries as they work to maintain the momentum on legal forest management production and trade to keep the bounty of our forests healthy, for our economies, for vulnerable communities, and for the benefit of us all.
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This article was written by Daphne Hewitt, Senior Forestry Officer and Team Leader, FAO-EU FLEGT Programme, FAO.