Module 2 and Module 3 of the Wildlife Series cover the issues of international frameworks, such as CITES, and criminal justice responses to wildlife trafficking. In this section, this module will only address flora-specific aspects of regulation, enforcement, and prevention.
In the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s, illegal logging was an international non-issue. The illegal timber trade was called “undocumented trade” in the 1994 International Timber Trade Agreement. Illegal timber gained traction on the international political agenda in the late 1990s (Kleinschmit et al., 2016). In contrast, the illegal exploitation of non-timber flora has never been high on the global agenda. As noted at the beginning of this module, the general awareness about illegal trade in flora is still low.
Some examples of international regulations and policy documents since the late 1990s specifically addressing the illegal trade in flora are the following:
1997: G8 Action Program on Forests. Illegal logging is one of five focus areas
2000: The establishment of the UN forum on Forests (UNFF)
2005-2007: The establishment of the REDD+ and the UN-REDD programme (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation)
2014: The New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF)
2015: Paris Climate Agreement
2015: UN Sustainable Development Summit
Apart from multilateral agreements, in 2005 the EU established the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan to address the problem of illegal logging. One of its key elements is the use of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), which are bilateral agreements between the EU and a timber-exporting country that aim to ensure that only legally harvested timber is imported into the EU (European Commission, n.d.).
Countries have developed different approaches to the enforcement of flora-related legislation. In some countries where illegal exploitation of wild flora is widespread and professionalized, there is general awareness among law enforcement officials about illegal exploitation. In other countries, illegal timber and forest crime may be treated as trade and compliance issues. Since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the number and breadth of environmental laws has grown dramatically. Nevertheless, environmental laws are often not enforced, let alone enforced with criminal sanctions. Legislation sometimes lack clear standards, or enforcement agencies lack necessary mandates and capacity. Moreover, implementing agencies are often underfunded and politically weak in comparison to ministries responsible for economic or natural resource development (Bruch, 2019).
In 2014, the authorities in Singapore seized 29,434 logs from Madagascar, which amounted to 3,235 tons of Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia spp.), a species protected under Appendix II of (CITES) since 2013. The shipment of logs was not accompanied by CITES documents. Moreover, an embargo on all timber/rosewood exports from Madagascar had been put in place in 2010. The timber was shipped despite the export ban.
The seizure of the Malagasy rosewood logs in Singapore was the equivalent to more than half of all rosewood seized in the decade prior to the seizure. The value of the smuggled timber was estimated at USD 50 million.
The importing individual and the company they worked for were both prosecuted for illegally importing CITES-listed timber. The defence of the accused argued that an import permit was not required, because the rosewood was only transiting Singapore.
The seizure led to a series of court cases in Singapore. Ultimately, in 2019, the Court of Appeal in Singapore ruled that the rosewood in question was not actually imported but was in transit, and thus the charges for illegal importation of the logs could not stand. As a result, the charges against the importer and their firm for importing the logs without a permit were dropped. The court also ordered Singaporean authorities to return the rosewood to the importer.
In Solomon Islands, the Forest Resources and Timber Utilisation Act (Cap 40) provides for the appointment of a Commissioner of Forests, and such numbers of enforcement officers, forest officers, and other officers as may be necessary to carry into effect the provisions on the Act. The Act gives explicit powers to the Commissioner of Forest Resources, enforcement officers, forestry officers and police officers.
Methods of flora forensics, such as investigating specific properties of timber in laboratories, offers possibilities to strengthen criminal investigations. Whereas forensic methods have a long history in crime investigation, flora forensics is relatively recent.
Forensic methods based on intrinsic characteristics of the wood itself are a crucial addition to legislation aimed at combating illegal logging and the associated trade. Two methods have been developed for this purpose. One method is used to verify the timber species. In this method, tools are used to identify species based on wood characteristics, e.g. wood anatomy, metabolic profiles and DNA barcoding (see box). Some of these tools, such as wood anatomy, have a long history of development, are broadly applied in timber verification, and have been used for forest law enforcement. Another method can be used to verify the geographical origin of timber, such as by analysing wood samples in comparison to reference data bases, chemical properties, and through the use of isotopes or DNA (Dormontt et al., 2015; UNODC, 2016).
In 2019, authorities in the Netherlands seized 30 tables made of hardwood timber that were suspected to include timber from Myanmar, whereas the EU had banned timber from Myanmar since 2017. The Chinese producer of the tables claimed the timber was teak from Brazil.
Laboratory examination with isotope techniques revealed that parts of the table were made from South East Asian teak, and likely from Myanmar. The declared Brazilian origin was false. The case highlights the potential utility of forensic methods for revealing fraud in the timber trade and accompanying documents.
The use of different technologies can expand law enforcement’s monitoring capabilities regarding the illegal exploitation of wild flora. Some of these technologies include satellite monitoring, LiDar technology, and the use of cell phones and GPS cameras as logging detectors.
Much of today’s forest monitoring is done with the help of satellites. Satellite data, such as that of Global Forest Watch, can show where deforestation occurs, and has considerable potential to further protect forests and support forest law enforcement. Satellite data has limitations, however; for example, the data usually involves a delay. Another limitation, depending on the resolution of the resulting imagery, is that not all systems can detect small-scale deforestation. Additionally, most satellites are optical and cannot ‘see’ through clouds. This is relevant for tropical rainforests, which are covered by clouds for half of the year. In countries with sophisticated satellite systems, such as Brazil, criminal timber networks have adapted strategies to log under the cloud cover, and to log selectively at small-scale to avoid satellite detection (Boekhout van Solinge, 2020). Radar satellites can see what happens under the cloud cover, but they are less common than optical satellites.
LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) is a “remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. These light pulses—combined with other data recorded by the airborne system — generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012). Despite having its own limitations, LiDar technology can help overcome some of the shortcomings of satellite monitoring, and has been used to count the number of coastal redwood trees in the USA to determine available targets in a study on redwood burl poaching (Kurland et al., 2018).
Rainforest Connection, a non-profit that works on the use of technology to aid conservation efforts, designs acoustic monitoring systems that can detect illegal logging by using old mobile phones. The main components of the device are a used mobile phone, solar panels, and a microphone. The device is placed in a tree’s canopy, and the microphone records the sounds of the rainforest. Artificial Intelligence is used to analyze the sound patterns, and is trained to identify chainsaw sounds. When the device identifies the sound of a chainsaw, it sends a text or email to the park authorities. One phone can cover almost one square mile of forest. A condition for this type of crime detection is that there is a mobile phone network available.
Nearly 100 listening devices have been deployed to forests in Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Peru, and Romania.
A pilot project in the Brazilian Amazon involved providing indigenous communities with GPS cameras.
Local community residents use waterproof GPS cameras to detect illegal logging activities. Communities without electricity and access to a mobile phone network were provided power banks and portable solar chargers.
In Brazil’s Maró Indigenous Territory, an indigenous surveillance team collected GPS-evidence of illegal logging activities. When GPS-referenced pictures of illegal forest activities were presented to the Environmental Inspection Agency (IBAMA), a helicopter was sent to the location of the illegal activities the same day. Eight logging concessions were cancelled and timber companies were expelled from indigenous territory as a result of the recorded evidence. The pilot project showed that local forest protection, even in remote areas without electricity or phone networks, can be carried out by supportive communities with access to trusted law enforcement actors.
Some of the activities described above can be helpful in reducing illegal exploitation of flora, since visible monitoring efforts, as well as successful apprehension and prosecution of offenders, can have a deterrent effect. There are also other types of initiatives geared specifically to the prevention of the illicit poaching of flora, such as the use of situational crime prevention techniques, or the involvement of local communities in the protection of their natural resources.
Situational crime prevention (SCP) refers to several techniques that can be used to reduce the opportunities for committing a crime. These techniques are organized into five main mechanisms: increase the effort required to commit the crime, increase the risk of detection, reduce the rewards obtained through the illicit behaviour, reduce the provocations to commit the crime, and remove the excuses that could be used to justify these activities (Clarke, 1997). Not all mechanisms can be applied to every type of crime: for instance, reducing the provocations has limited applicability to the field of crimes against flora. Situational crime prevention requires detailed analysis of the specific problem at hand, and its context, in order to design a set of responses tailored to the local issue. Some examples of the application of SCP to the problem of illegal exploitation of flora are:
Increase the effort
Increase the risk
Reduce the reward
Remove the excuses
The illegal exploitation of flora has repercussions for local communities, including by depriving them of resources important to their livelihoods, such as food and medicine (see section on Consequences of harms to wild flora). That said, local communities can enact community-based crime prevention strategies, especially around hotspots of plant and tree poaching. Furthermore, it is important to note that crime prevention interventions need to be seen in the context of alternative livelihoods and demand-reduction efforts. Module 5 of the Wildlife Series covers the issue of community engagement and sustainable livelihoods.