Tuesday, October 07, 2008

"The stolen forests" - trade, the environment and corruption

A fine article from the New Yorker that combines trade, the environment, development and corruption - all favorite topics of mine. This is an excellent and lengthy 9 page article but is well worth the effort.

H/T Matt Kahn.

The Stolen Forests [New Yorker]

Chances are good that if an item sold in the United States was recently made in China using oak or ash, the wood was imported from Russia through Suifenhe. Because as much as half of the hardwood from Primorski Krai is harvested in violation of Russian law—either by large companies working with corrupt provincial officials or by gangs of men in remote villages—it is likely that any given piece of wood in the city has been logged illegally. This wide-scale theft empowers mafias, robs the Russian government of revenue, and assists in the destruction of one of the most precious ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. Lawmakers in the province have called for “emergency measures” to stem the flow of illegal wood, and Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources has said that in the region “there has emerged an entire criminal branch connected with the preparation, storage, transportation, and selling of stolen timber.


A fifth of the world’s wood comes from countries that have serious problems enforcing their timber laws, and most of those countries are also experiencing the fastest rates of deforestation. Until a decade ago, many governments were reluctant to acknowledge illegal logging, largely because it was made possible by the corruption of their own officials. As early as the nineteeneighties, the Philippines had lost the vast majority of its primary forests and billions of dollars to illegal loggers. Papua New Guinea, during roughly the same period, experienced such catastrophic forest loss that it commissioned independent auditors to assess why it was happening; they determined that logging companies were “roaming the countryside with the self-assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out, and export the last remnants of the province’s valuable timber.” In 1998, the Brazilian government announced that most of the country’s logging operations were being conducted beyond the ambit of the law.


Sun Laiyong’s references to organized crime pointed to one of the most disturbing aspects of the illegal timber trade: the violence that supports it. Last December, the body of a Russian banker with close ties to the timber industry was found at the bottom of his swimming pool, near Moscow. A bag had been pulled over his head, and his arms had been tied to his ankles. In a sloppy attempt at a coverup, a suicide note had been left at the scene, prompting a law-enforcement official to say, “He’s not Harry Houdini.” I heard of a similar “suicide” not far from Vladivostok earlier this year: an activist working with the World Wildlife Fund was found at a remote hunting cabin, fatally shot, an unconvincing note by his side. This type of violence can be found elsewhere. Earlier this year, in Peru, a community leader who tried to report a shipment of stolen timber was shot to death in a government office. Three years ago, in Brazil, a missionary and community organizer from Ohio, Sister Dorothy Stang, was murdered in the state of ParĂ¡, where a third of the Brazilian Amazon’s deforestation is occurring and where she had made enemies of loggers.


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