Illegal logging, a phenomenon in Malaysia

About 40 per cent of Malaysia's consumption and timber export was estimated to have been acquired illegally.
Illegal logging in Malaysia is not a new phenomenon. According to a non-governmental organisation with an international coordinating body in Amsterdam, Malaysia has an illegal logging rate of 35 per cent. About 40 per cent of its consumption and timber export was estimated to have been acquired illegally. Indeed, according to Transparency International Malaysia, the amount lost to illegal logging annually is estimated to be between RM800 million and RM900 million, about five per cent of the total timber export of some RM20 billion.

A 2011 study by the World Bank revealed that two-thirds of the world’s top tropical timber producing nations were losing at least half of their timber to illegal loggers. Although the activity is overshadowed by other crimes, such as terrorism, drugs and human trafficking, illegal logging is an environmental crime that poses a number of challenges. In many developing countries, including Malaysia, environmental crime has not been the subject of great public attention. The chief minister of Sarawak’s initiatives to curb illegal logging should be praised as his no-nonsense approach has made him a sincere defender and friend of the forests. Among the reasons the chief minister is fighting tooth and nail against illegal logging are:

  • It is the cause of widespread environmental damage and rapid loss of primary forest. Deforestation translates into a loss of the many environmental services that forests provide, such as water regulation, soil formation and stabilisation. Indeed, the removal of forests can exacerbate catastrophic flooding. The recent devastating floods in Gua Musang, Kelantan, should serve as a lesson for the people of Sarawak. Illegal logging has also resulted in the loss of wildlife and threatened endangered species.

  • Economic losses due to tax evasion, fees and other revenues associated with legal forestry. According to the United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol, the economic value of global illegal logging, including processing, is estimated to be worth between US$30 and US$100 billion (RM126 billion to RM420 billion) or 10 to 30 per cent of global wood trade.

  • The social impact. It has been argued that illegal logging has been shown to fuel poverty, and increase uneven power relations and access to resources and land. Local communities and indigenous groups that are directly dependent on forest resources for subsistence needs are often those severely affected. Indeed, illegal logging represents the starting point of a complex process of interconnected organised criminal activities undertaken at international level.
What is the principle motivation behind illegal logging? The answer is simple — the very high profits for the perpetrators and low risks of detection. According to Interpol and the World Bank, timber is a commodity no different from narcotics, weapons, vehicles or any other internationally traded goods that can generate profits. The fact that timber is “easy to launder” and appears as a “clean business” compared with drug or human trafficking leads to the notion that the activity is not a serious crime. In fact, it is often mistakenly seen as a “victimless” crime. It has been argued that the logic is not only forestry companies harvest illegally, but they are fundamentally supported by non-environmentally sensitive markets that demand timber products without considering whether the timber was harvested illegally.

It is a fact that combating illegal logging is not easy despite the government’s efforts to control it. Timber may be transported through several countries before reaching its final destination, logging firms may be based in different countries, and profits may be invested in tax haven countries or recirculated into other legal or illegal enterprises. The more countries are involved, the harder it is to trace the origin of the wood, and easier it is to take advantage of the lack of harmonisation between different national legislation and international treaties.

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