Inhibiting the Mafia and the Prevention of Illegal Logging

The value of rare wood attracts petty thieves, government officials and the Mafia. In fact, a new report from the United Nations finds that up to 90 % of tropical deforestation can be attributed to organised crime which controls 30 % of the global timber trade. Unfortunately illegal logging rates have actually been rising, with many ploys being initiated such as fake permits, bribed officials, hacked databases and mixing illegal timber amongst common stock.

The theft of tropical wood. Photo source: see ref (1)

Last month, Hang Serei Oudom, a Cambodian journalist who exposed illegal logging and corrupt officials involved in forest crimes was found murdered in the boot of his car. In April this year, tireless campaigner Chhut Vuthy, was shot dead by a Cambodian military policeman after refusing to hand over photographs showing illegal logging in the southwestern Koh Kong province. Or that’s the official version – his family insist a third person was involved. According to the UN, Cambodia’s forest cover has decreased from 73 per cent in 1990 to 57 per cent in 2010.

Chhut Vuthy, killed in April. (The Economist)

This destruction of natural habitat is with a double-edged sword, not only are threatened forests and their creatures destroyed, but deforestation followed by burning, largely of tropical rainforests, is responsible for an estimated 17 per cent of all man-made emissions (50 per cent more than that from ships, aviation and land transport combined)1. As the UN report notes, today only one-tenth of primary forest cover remains on the globe.

Project LEAF, an Interpol and UN collaboration

Unlike with drugs or ivory, shipping timber is still legal. However, Interpol recently stepped into the logging foray this year in June with the creation of LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests). This is a combined effort by the UN and Interpol funded by the Norwegian government. The project’s objectives are:

  • Providing an overview and review of extent, primary geographic locations, routes, causes and structure of networks involved in illegal logging, corruption, fraud, laundering and smuggling of wood products;
  • Supporting countries in improved enforcement efforts;
  • Providing training and operational support;
  • Providing insights into the way organized criminals organize their activities;
  • Developing best practices for combating REDD-related and forest-related corruption.

While it is certainly positive that this initiative has been launched, enforcement is difficult when dealing with governments who are involved in the profits, and illegal logging is often taking place in countries with lesser degrees of law and order. This suggests to me that a combined use of tracking technology and enforcement would aid this project.

RFID tag, commonly attached to goods we buy. (BBC)

Radio chip tracking technologies are already on the increase by global brands to monitor products and customer behaviour, and some environmental use has started. The Instituto Ação Verde (The Green Action Institute) is using thumb-sized RFID devices to track over 2,500 Amazon trees. The Fraunhofer Institute is even working on a RFID tag comprised mostly of wood, to prevent adding impurities and extra labour in downstream processing, thus overcoming some objections from timber companies.

Perhaps LEAF is looking at this line of thought already, but it seems to me a global database of tree RFID tags allowing effective tracking would make Interpol’s and the UN’s life easier. These could be created by LEAF and given to local enforcement and forestry agencies, with initial supervision of their attachment to the tree or/and shipment of trees leaving ports and harbours. An international legal requirement of tracking timber shipments would be a further boon.


1. Green Carbon, Black Trade: Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the World’s Tropical Forests. UNEP and Interpol. 2012.

7 thoughts on “Inhibiting the Mafia and the Prevention of Illegal Logging

  1. Hi, my name is Paulo Borges, I’m Action Green Institute’s superintendent. About 4 years, we are working with trees monitoring, using tags RFID. The system assure the transparency about all the explored tree moviment putting a final dot in the wood illegal commerce.
    The using of the system plus tags RFID, allow us make a geography identity for each tree in our florests. I put myself in disposition to explain some doubts about the system we are using.

    • Hi Paulo, thanks for your comment and explanation. Yes, it does seem like an excellent method for tree monitoring and I hope that it does continue to grow. Does your institute have any interaction with Interpol and Project LEAF ? I would think that they could use the expertise and technology of your organisation.

      • Thanks Ryan, We do not have any interaction with Interpol and Project LEAF. But I put myself in disposition to share our knowledge

    • Hi,
      All stages of the project have already been successfully tested.
      We have a robust system capable of tracking all the timber trade in Brazilian Amazonia, ranging from the implementation of forest inventory extraction and transportation of round timber.
      This is possible since each tree is replaced by an identity and a certification of geographical origin giving transparency to the whole process in near real time and can be monitored from anywhere in the world via the web.
      The big challenge now is to continue this process since there interreses contraries this transparency in any part of the world to deploy this system, without a shadow of doubt that would end the illegal timber trade.
      And hope for the future through partnerships that system leaves the interrese local or personal pass to be seen as a great opportunity to work correctly valuing and take away from the market that continue to exist in the criminal exploitation of our natural resources.

      Greetings, sorry for my English.

      • Hi Paulo,

        I contacted Interpol regarding your work with RFID tree tagging and received the following reply:

        Dear Ryan,

        Thank you for your email, and for bringing this work to our attention. We will investigate this opportunity further.

        We appreciate your interest in this Project. It is new, and at its earliest stages, but we are ambitious and hope to have a genuine and significant impact on reducing illegal logging.

        Best regards / Cordialement / Atentamente / مع التحية

        Davyth Stewart
        Criminal Intelligence Officer
        Team Leader, Project LEAF
        Environmental Crime Programme
        I.P.C.O. – INTERPOL, General Secretariat

  2. Hi Paulo, I am happy to hear that the project has been successfully tested, and that it is robust. I hope your perseverance pays off with the deployment of the system – I am sure that is not easy. I think partnerships will be important, and I for one, will keep track of your project and help spread the word.

    Thanks for your input – and good luck. And your English is fine to understand!

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