Organized crime is diversifying beyond drugs and human trafficking into a new business: deforestation.
According to the United Nations, illegal logging in tropical forests is worth big bucks: $30-$100 billion a year. Criminal syndicates net about $11 billion of this, according to the World Bank — close to the $13 billion they bring in from producing drugs.
The Washington Post reports that illegal deforestation accounts for nearly a third of world logging and takes place “in tropical areas such as the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia.”
The deleterious effects of deforestation are well known. “The most dramatic impact is a loss of habitat for millions of species,” according to National Geographic. “Seventy percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.” It removes trees that form part of the forest canopy, which blocks the sun during the day and holds heat in at night. “This disruption leads to more extreme temperatures swings that can be harmful to” the plants and animals that survive the logging itself.
National Geographic also points out that deforestation “drives climate change. Forest soils are moist, but without protection from sun-blocking tree cover they quickly dry out. Trees also help perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapor back into the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.”
It is the connection with water that led a town in Mexico beset by criminal loggers to fight back. When a criminal syndicate started cutting down the local forests, the residents of Cheran found that the police and government were no help. “The bad men come and we are unprotected,” a town leader told The Washington Post. “Without trees there is no water, the soil erodes and no one can live from the land. So we decided to protect ourselves.”
The town banished the police and the mayor and established a city council. It organized a militia that stops every person who seeks to enter the area at “barricades made of logs.” And it has scared off the illicit loggers.
But the criminals did not leave without a fight. They murdered many residents, but the town stood firm.
Unfortunately, these heroic measures cannot be expected in every forested area of the globe, and in the meantime, the criminals’ logging is fueling global warming. “Fewer forests means larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere—and increased speed and severity of global warming,” National Geographic explains. There is no end in sight, as demand for wood is on the increase. “China is set to double its wood consumption by 2020,” reports The Washington Post. “Global demand for timber products is growing massively.”
The U.N.’s report, called “Green Carbon, Black Trade,” makes a number of recommendations for combating illegal deforestation, including “a full-fledged Law Enforcement Assistance to Forests (LEAF)” program that would undertake “coordinated international and improved national law enforcement and investigative efforts to reduce illegal logging, the international trade in illegally felled timber and forest-related corruption including tax fraud and laundering.”
It will indeed take coordinated international efforts to protect the world’s resources from organized crime. The people of Cheran cannot fight this battle alone.