This module is a resource for lecturers


Wild flora as the target of illegal trafficking


The issue of “plant blindness”

The first module of the Series on Wildlife Crime discusses the challenges associated with the available data and estimates regarding the level and patterns of wildlife, forest, and fisheries crime. There is a tendency to attempt to make estimates, but the data gaps are large and there are few reliable statistics.

Margulies et al. (2019) discussed the fact that plants have been largely ignored in research and policy on the illegal wildlife trade (IWT). Even though a wide variety of plant species are being threatened by illegal exploitation or IWT, flora is an often-neglected topic in the research and funding dedicated to understanding, preventing and combating the illegal trade in wildlife, with issues relating to timber perhaps constituting an exception. Margulies et al. (2019) refer to this as an example of “plant blindness”, a term that was coined earlier by other authors, which refers to the “misguided anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals” (Wandersee and Schussler, 1999, p. 82). Within wild flora, most research has focused on deforestation and the related issue of illegal logging, and by extension this has led to a geographically constrained focus, with most attention on tropical forests (Goettsch et al., 2015). Flora species from all ecosystems, including cacti that grow in arid lands, are affected and so also require consideration (Goettsch et al., 2015).

This lack of data and research is particularly puzzling given that plants constitute a large percentage of the species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Across its three appendices, CITES regulates international trade in flora and fauna in an attempt to ensure sustainability of such trade. Flora represents 37% of the roughly 1,100 species protected in Appendix I, which lists the most endangered species, and 86% of the over 37,000 species protected in Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened but may become so unless trade is closely controlled. The figure below clearly illustrates the relative weight of flora (orchids and plants) among the species protected by the Convention. For more information on CITES please refer to the UNODC Module on International Frameworks for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

Figure 1 - Taxonomic breakdown of CITES Appendices I and II. From Hinsley et al. (2018, p. 441)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Melanesia, illegal logging and other forest crime

The Global Organized Crime Index, developed by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, is an online to tool to measure levels of organized crime in any one country and assess that country’s resilience to organised crime-related activities. Flora crimes are one of the organised crime activities included in the Index and for the Melanesian Islands States the Index reports high levels of illegal logging and other forest crime:

Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s largest rainforests, which is home to several hundreds of CITES-listed plant species, many of which, tropical hardwood trees that are under particular threat from the illegal timber trade, which has proliferated in recent years. Foreign actors play a key role in the illegal timber sector, both in terms of the companies carrying out the illegal logging and as the most significant consumer market — as do state-embedded actors who facilitate the trade. 

The Solomon Islands rely heavily on timber with over 50% of its exports coming from logging. Reports indicate that much of this billion-dollar industry is illegal. This is predominantly due to the involvement of transnational corporations from China and Malaysia abusing quotas and avoiding regulations, and shipping about two thirds of their harvest to China. In addition, state actors are known to engage in bribery and other corrupt practices, facilitating illicit logging.

In Vanuatu, illegal logging operations are reported to occur and case evidence suggests that the actors involved in the market operate locally and include public servants and landowners among others. For instance, in 2018, there were reports of commercial illegal logging activities in Big Bay, Matantas, the largest conservation area in the country. Additionally, there have been unconfirmed reports of the processing of rosewood, most likely destined for the Chinese furniture market. (Global Initiative against Transnational Crime, 2020)

According to some sources, Fiji’s forest area has been steadily increasing since 1990, which suggests that illegal logging is not commercialized. It does, however, take place on a small scale, mainly for local and domestic use. This increase in forest cover is, however, contentious, since it is ascribed to the increase in plantations of pine and mahogany (both monocultures) while the area of primary forests has actually decreased. Over the period 1991 to 2010, while the area of closed native forest in Fiji decreased from 704,856 hectares to 562,055 hectares, the area of open forest increased from 223,530 hectares to 414,682 hectares primarily due to the expansion of agriculture and infrastructure development. (FAO, 2015)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Vanuatu, Pacific Kauri

The Pacific kauri (agathis macrophylla) is a large tree, reaching 1 to 3 metres in trunk diameter, and is typically 30 to 40 metres tall. Its bark is smooth on young trees, and scaly or platy when mature. It has leathery dark green leaves, seed cones (globe shaped female cones) and wide spreading root systems. The cream to gold colour wood from Pacific kauri is sought after by the commercial timber industry for many uses, especially as surface veneer and for building construction. Its leaves are also used in traditional medicine.

The Pacific kauri is part of the conifers group and grows in elevations of 50 to 550 metres, usually on volcanic soils. It is found on the islands of Aneityum, Tanna and Erromango (where a special nature reserve for kauri has been established) in Vanuatu, as well Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The tree is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; unsustainable and illegal logging in natural forests is ongoing in parts of the Pacific kauri’s range and is the biggest threat to its survival.

(Vanuatu Environmental Science Society, 2017)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Vanuatu, illegal logging

Bluwota is the local name in Vanuatu for the rosewood species Pterocarpus indicus. In 2017, local news reported that approximately 120 containers of bluwota slabs were exported to China in a two-month period, with the trees being illegally felled on Santo Island, roughly squared as a measure to side-step the round log export ban, then transported to Luganville for packing in containers and export to China. In response, the Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture issued a ban in February 2018 on the processing and trade of bluwota slabs. However, subsequent reports claimed that illegal bluwota exports continued and the ban was not being effectively enforced.

In January 2021, a Commission of Inquiry into illegal logging in Vanuatu was launched to identify the scale of illegal activities taking place during the 2017–2019 period. The findings of the inquiry were presented to Parliament in September 2021 and reported that illegal logging activities had occurred in multiple locations in Vanuatu. It confirmed that bluwota exports had continued despite the ban, that two of the logging companies had not paid their full licence fees, and three foreign companies exporting the bluwota timber were not registered with either the Vanuatu Financial Service Commission or the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Agency. It also revealed illegal logging occurring in conservation areas with no action from relevant authorities, and provided recommendations for further investigation and prosecution. 

(McGarry, 2018; Campaign for Justice, 2020; Daniel, 2021; Roberts, 2021)

Estimated size of the illegal market

In the case of illegal exploitation of wild flora, the problem of reliable data is particularly manifest with plants. Not much systematic research has been done on this issue. As noted by Goettsch et al. (2015), the global status of plant species, and the likelihood of their extinction in the near future, remains poorly understood, despite the general importance of plants for ecosystems.

In addition to the legal trade, often through nurseries, there also exists an illegal trade in wild-sourced plants. Goettsch et al. (2015) found that 86% of threatened cacti used in horticulture were extracted from wild populations. Phelps and Webb (2015), in the first in-depth study of the trade of wild-collected ornamental plants in continental Southeast Asia, discovered that there is a large degree of underreporting of the illegal trade in ornamental plants. The observed cross-border trade was orders of magnitude larger than the government-reported CITES statistics. The authors found a massive, previously undocumented, commercial trade in wild, protected ornamental plants involving Thailand, Lao PDR and Myanmar. Hinsley (2018), who looked at the role of online platforms in the illegal orchid trade, found that there is considerable overlap between the legal and illegal online trade.

The problem of lack of reliable data also exists with regard to the illegal logging and related timber trade, but much less so compared to non-timber flora. The larger focus on timber-issues within the realm of wild flora could potentially be explained by the fact that illegal logging entered the international political agenda earlier due to the large-scale timber operations, visible impact on rainforests, use of violence and overall economic importance of the sector. Hence, much more scientific knowledge of illegal timber markets is available than on illegal plant markets. For example, over one hundred scientific publications can be found in which illegal logging is discussed, mostly in forestry and natural science journals (for an overview see Kleinschmit et al., 2016). There have been a fair number of criminological publications on illegal logging and deforestation since the 2000s (Boekhout van Solinge 2008; Graycar and Felson 2010; Bisschop 2012, 2013, 2015; Wyatt 2014; Cao 2018; Wagner et al., 2020). Nevertheless, the 2016 International Union of Forest Research Organizations Expert Panel on Illegal Timber Trade noted that severe data gaps exist in measuring illegal logging and related timber trade. Estimates of the global market value of the illegal logging and illegal timber trade range from USD 10 billion to USD 100 billion annually (Kleinschmit et al., 2016).

Example: Deforestation as an indicator of threats to wild flora

The exploitation of wild flora and forests, notwithstanding whether it is legal or illegal, is promoting and driving forest fragmentation, forest degradation, deforestation, and the associated loss of flora biodiversity. Between 2015 - 2020, the annual global rate of deforestation was estimated to be 10 million hectares, while primary forests had declined by 80 million hectares since 1990. It is difficult - if not impossible - to establish the extent to which deforestation is driven by legal or illegal activities. In some key rainforest countries, illegal logging is estimated to account for 35 to 90 per cent of all forestry activities, although precise numbers are lacking. This lack of precision in the estimates can likely be explained by the limited –or absent– land registry systems around the world.

Notwithstanding the challenges in gauging illegality, deforestation and forest cover loss can shed some light on the scale and scope of threats to wild flora. Satellite imagery allows the identification of geographical differences between drivers of deforestation. Figure 1 (below) provides an overview of the different drivers of forest cover loss between 2001-2015. The term “forestry” describes large-scale forestry/logging operations that take place within managed forests.

Graph 1 - Primary drivers of forest cover loss between 2001-2015. Source: Curtis et al. (2018: 1110)

While forest cover loss is a useful indicator of threats to wild flora, not all illegal activities that exploit wild flora cause deforestation, making it an imperfect estimate of the magnitude of the problem. For example, illegal harvesting of plants or certain species of trees within a forest might not cause complete deforestation yet can have devastating impacts on the functionality of the ecosystem as a whole.

(Gan et al., 2016 ; Curtis et al., 2018 ; FAO and UNEP, 2020)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

UNODC, Illicit logging and timber trafficking in the Pacific

Determining accurate levels of the importation, exportation and consumption of illicit timber products is inherently difficult; many countries do not collect data or information or report on seizures of such products, and there are extensive inconsistencies in the ways countries control and regulate the trade, ranging from a lack of monitoring and enforcement measures in some countries, to bans on the importation and/or use of tropical and unsustainably produced timber in others. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC’s) Land Resources Division acknowledge that forests, trees, and timber products in general occupy significant roles in the lives of residents across social, economic, cultural, and environmental domains. In this context, in many Pacific Islands, particularly on smaller islands and atolls, agroforestry and tree crops provide much of the food, construction materials, medicines, tools, firewood and numerous other benefits that cannot be replaced with imported alternatives. For larger nations, forests have contributed substantially to economic development in relation to infrastructure development, employment and revenue generated via exporting products; for example, in the Solomon Islands, log exports alone contribute between 50% and 70% of the country’ annual export revenue. Thus, in consideration of the need for economic development and the social and environmental requirements of local populations, a significant challenge for Pacific Island Countries and Territories is the sustainable management of forest and tree/timber resources. Illegal logging practices and trade represent a real threat to sustainable natural resources in the Pacific region, especially given that it continues to be a well-reported and significant law enforcement issue for a number of Pacific islands, particularly Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

(UNODC, 2016)
Next: Purposes for which wild flora is illegally targeted
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