The Greater Mekong region: A hotspot of wildlife and crime
- The global illegal timber trade generates up to $152 billion a year, accounting for up to 90% of deforestation in tropical countries and attracting the world’s biggest organized crime groups.
- Illegal logging is today responsible for 15% to 30% of global timber production. Estimates vary because complex international supply chains make it difficult to ensure the timber has been lawfully handled at every stage.
- Illegal logging is devastating forests in the Greater Mekong region, which consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and parts of China.
Did you know that illegal logging can be five times as lucrative as selling the world’s most well-known soda? In 2020, the Coca-Cola company reported $33 billion in revenue. The global illegal timber trade, in comparison, generates up to $152 billion a year — accounting for up to 90% of deforestation in tropical countries and attracting the world’s biggest organized crime groups.
Illegal logging is today responsible for 15% to 30% of global timber production. Estimates vary because complex international supply chains make it difficult to ensure the timber has been lawfully handled at every stage.
The process starts with the issuance of logging permits, where unscrupulous companies might bribe government officials to influence the bidding process. During the harvesting stage, loggers commonly bribe inspectors or rangers in order to cut down greater quantities or protected species illegally. Post-harvest, the raw logs head to the sawmills, providing an opportunity for the mills to launder illegal timber by mixing it with legally sourced wood. When the timber has been processed and is ready to be transported, sellers might falsify documents and bribe checkpoint officials, further tainting the wood with illegality.
Illegal logging is often linked to tax evasion, fraud, money laundering and other serious financial crimes. These are facilitated by corruption and weak law enforcement, which are particularly problematic in the Greater Mekong region.
Consisting of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and parts of China, the Greater Mekong is one of the world’s most significant biodiversity hotspots and home to rare wildlife such as the critically endangered saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), also known as the “Asian unicorn.” Not only do the region’s forests hold valuable diversity, they also serve as carbon sinks and play a crucial role in helping to fight global climate change.
Yet, illegal logging is devastating the region’s forests. Experts say it may even have accelerated under the pandemic, with restrictions on movement reducing the number of officers on the ground and making it more challenging to enforce regulations. In 2020 alone, the Greater Mekong countries, excluding China, lost 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of forest. That’s an area about seven times the size of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city.
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