Illegal Logging: Background and Issues

Publication Date: March 2007

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Author(s): Pervaze A. Sheikh

Research Area: Environment

Type: Report


Illegal logging is a pervasive problem throughout the world, affecting countries that produce, export, and import wood and wood products. Illegal logging is generally defined as the harvest, transport, purchase, or sale of timber in violation of national laws. In some timber-producing countries in the developing world, illegal logging represents over half of timber production and exports. The World Bank estimates that illegal logging costs governments approximately $15 billion annually in lost royalties. Illegal logging may stimulate corruption, collusion, and other crimes within governments, and has been linked to the purchase of weapons in regional conflicts in Africa. Illegal logging, however, does economically benefit the perpetrators by reducing the cost of legal and regulatory compliance, sometimes resulting in reduced prices. Illegal logging in protected areas can lead to altered forest ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and indirectly to deforestation and the spread of agrarian activity in some developing countries.

Several relevant multilateral and international agreements relate to illegal logging and illegal timber trade. These range from voluntary agreements that, for example, allow consumer countries to exchange data with producing countries, to legally binding multilateral agreements that enable signatory governments to seize illegal products and exercise financial penalties on illegally produced timber.

The United States is the world's largest wood products consumer and one of the top importers of tropical hardwoods. Some are concerned that U.S. demand for tropical timber from countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia may be a driver of illegal logging. Others assert that if there were no illegally logged wood in the global market, the value of U.S. exports of timber could increase substantially. The United States has no specific domestic laws that address all aspects of illegal logging. Logging within the United States is addressed by several laws and regulations -- some federal, but many state -- that depend on what species is logged, and where and how it is done.

In 2003, the United States developed an initiative to help developing countries stop illegal logging. This initiative adopted several approaches to address illegal logging, including removing legal and institutional barriers that prevent law enforcement against illegal logging; using technology for monitoring legal trade and transparency in logging; and creating incentives to promote local communities to abolish illegal logging practices.

In some free trade agreement negotiations between the United States and other countries, illegal logging has become an issue. For example, some contend that a pending free trade agreement with Peru, if enacted, may lead to an increase in illegal harvesting and import of Peruvian mahogany. Others contend that the FTA may increase the awareness of illegal logging in Peru, and add an additional enforcement mechanism to address illegal logging in Peru.