Friday, 22 August 2008

How to crack down on rampant illegal logging

Letter to the Editor published Jakarta Post 22nd August 2008

How to crack down on rampant illegal logging

Ahmad Maryudi, Goettingen, Germany

If you had the chance to see the documentary movie Timber Mafia released by Journeyman Pictures in 2002, you would have some idea of the massive scale of illegal logging in Indonesia.

Although efforts have been made to crack down on illegal logging in Indonesia, it appears the problem is getting worse. It is hard to get accurate data on its magnitude, because there are no accurate records on it.

Estimates indicate that approximately 70 percent of timber sourced from the country is illegally harvested, amounting to a massive 50 million cubic meters. A high-ranking government official said the annual loss from illegal logging accounts for between US$600 and $1,500 million.

This accounts for over 1.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product, as much as the contribution of "legal" forest products to the GDP. This loss is only assessed on the royalty that would have been paid if the timber had been legally harvested. Therefore, the total financial loss is much larger.

What are the underlying causes of illegal logging and how can we deal with it? Some analysts have mentioned market failure as a main cause. Markets for illegally-logged timber are so widely available, even in environmentally-concerned regions, that the legal markets can hardly function alongside the illegal ones!

The international marketing problem is undeniable and apparently beyond government control. While expecting improvements in global markets, we should also focus on government failures in dealing with illegal logging.
Domestically, it is evident that illegal forestry activities are strongly linked with underdeveloped regulatory frameworks and lack of enforcement capacity by governmental agencies, compounded by corruption and collusion between illegal loggers and officials in forestry and state agencies.
It is difficult to isolate these factors as they are interdependent.
From a policy perspective, some current regulations are thought to have encouraged illegal logging. These includes poor taxation and levy systems for timber products and poor regulation of forestry concessions, including soft penalties for violations.

Others point to corruption and collusion involving forestry officials. Although this is hard to prove at both institutional and individual levels, few would deny that it happens.

Given the trend to decentralization, local governments have become more influential, including in the granting of logging permits. There have been strong pointers to corruption and collusion in respect of the granting of logging concessions.

Evidence shows that in many cases illegal forestry activities are supported by state officials, including forestry officials and police, as well as military personnel.

Not so long ago, some middle-level forestry and police officers in a timber rich region were brought to Jakarta allegedly for supporting illegal logging. One might argue that these reflected individual or personal actions, but there were also institutional failures to control individual actions.

Unfortunately, efforts to crack down on illegal logging are further hindered by poor law enforcement. The limited number of forest rangers the forestry ministry can deploy are not enabled to proceed on the illegal cases they have discovered.

Experience show that in many illegal logging cases the alleged suspects have been left unnapprehended, untried and unpunished.
To control illegal logging at domestic level the government can take the option to improve forestry industry regulations.

More importantly, the regulations should provide sanctions against violations. Illegal loggers and those working with them can ignore the law with impunity because it is not backed by convincing sanctions.

Since illegal logging involves international trade, the government should be actively engaged in bilateral and multilateral agreements within and across regions, involving both producer and consumer nations. This should include exchanges of information on timber production, consumption and trade and collaboration on law enforcement between police forces at international level.

To sum up, Indonesia clearly suffers from illegal logging. While circumstances in timber markets also contribute to encouraging illegal logging, to a large extent the underlying causes are linked to governmental failures.

Therefore, the government needs to make substantial efforts to deal with the problem. Options for positive strategies include reform of the national forestry policy framework as well as promoting intergovernmental agreements against illegal logging.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Gadjah Mada and a PhD candidate at Goettingen University, Germany. He can be reached at This is a personal opinion.