Demand for Expensive Furniture Is Fueling Illegal Logging in Indonesia

Loopholes in a ban on forest clearing have led to the destruction of critical habitat for orangutans and other wildlife.
(Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Oct 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Palm oil plantations and forest fires aren’t the only threats to Indonesia’s orangutans. The country’s oldest and most ecologically important forests are being raided by illegal loggers to feed worldwide demand for rare hardwoods. Much of that timber is used to make expensive furniture or flooring.

Despite a supposed moratorium on forest clearing, a 2014 investigation by the University of Maryland found that Indonesia has the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Much of that forest clearance, according to the study, is illegal and takes place in national parks and other protected areas that should be safe habitats for orangutans and other rare wildlife.

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest timber exporters, earning about $10 billion a year.

Although illegal logging is a pervasive problem, the situation has improved in recent years. “Indonesia used to have completely out-of-control illegal logging in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” said Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency. “It was estimated that at least 80 percent of the wood produced in Indonesia during that period had broken one law or another.”

(See Pete Bethune and his team uncover a group of illegal loggers devastating a Sumatran national park in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

International pressure over the past decade has helped to reduce a good deal of the illegal logging. A new law called the Timber Legality Assurance System (better known by the Indonesian acronym SVLK) requires all shipments of lumber to be certified as legal. The law, which passed in 2009, has slowly come into effect over the past five years. “Our understanding is of the formal logging concessions, most of those are now certified under the scheme,” said Wadley.

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There’s a major loophole, though. Any trees cut down while clearing a forest for other purposes—such as planting a palm-oil plantation or mining—can then be sold as timber and do not need to be certified under SVLK. The timber coming from this clear-cut forest conversion “isn’t yet certified under this system, but it should have been,” said Wadley. “That timber is swirling around in the marketplace somewhere in Indonesia.”

This is no small problem. A 2014 investigation by the EIA uncovered widespread corruption, bribery, and outright licensing violations related to clear-cut timber. The majority of this lumber was still sold as legal under SVLK.

Then there’s the illegal market. A 2007 investigation found illegal logging in 37 of Indonesia’s 41 national parks, a situation that experts feel has not improved.

“There are always actors in Indonesia who will go out with no authorization at all and do things like log high-value trees in national parks or in buffer zones,” said Wadley. “In some cases there are individuals who will go into national parks or other protected areas and clear large areas for agriculture. That might be oil palm or other crops.” These activities occur in areas ranging from very small to several acres or larger. The sites are often several days’ hike away from authorities so criminals can conduct their trade without ever being seen.

Wadley said the EIA and other organizations have continued to put pressure on the Indonesian government, but enforcement remains difficult because different ministries regulate the lumber and palm oil industries. Meanwhile, local mayors or county leaders issue licenses to whomever they want. “They do not always agree with the Ministry of Forestry’s policies on timber or forests,” he said. “They just want to open up areas to bring in tax revenues for their local districts or provinces.”

Wadley said international laws are the best way to put pressure on Indonesia’s logging industry to reform itself. That tactic appears to be working. Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that a 2008 update to the Lacey Act—which added illegal timber and paper to its ban on wildlife trafficking—has reduced illegal wood imports into the U.S. by as much as 44 percent.

Wadley called this a critical time for Indonesia’s forests and the wildlife that depends on them. “What’s left needs to be saved,” he said. “Indonesians can either hold their heads up in 10 years and say, ‘We did a great job of protecting what needed to be protected while allowing for economic growth and development,’ or they can hold their heads in shame and say, ‘We have completely created an environment that nobody wants to come visit anymore.’ ”