Illegal Logging and Biodiversity Degradation in the Tropics

Logging is a wood harvesting practice of extracting commercial with mostly merchantable timber from a forest. What does this mean? What and why is tropical forest degradation?

Tropical forest is diverse in terms of flora (plant species) and fauna (wildlife species); it provides various goods such as timber for construction, and non-timber products such as tree resin, medicines, bee honey, mushroom, food, meat, firewood etc. for daily livelihood of the local population. Forest also provides various services such as protection of local cultures and belief, clean water, watershed protection, fresh air and climate regulation. Unfortunately, tropical forest is located in a continent experiencing rapid economic development and fast growing population along with political uncertainties, and where most of the poor live.

Tropical forest has been cleared for population resettlements or displacements, agricultural cultivation, and sometimes due to the indiscriminate logging practices that open uncontrolled accessible road to the anarchic landless farmers who continue to settle and clear the forests for housing and agricultural cultivation. The rate of deforestation of the tropical natural forest is about 0.7% or 14.4 million ha annually between 1980 and 2003. Tropical deforestation is responsible for the release of about 20-29% of the global carbon emissions. It has been estimated that total area of tropical rain forest declines from 14% of the earth’s total land surface to 6% in recent year. Tropical rain forest is losing about 137 plant, animal and insect species every due to deforestation.

In additional to tropical deforestation, forest degradation and biodiversity loss are facing the tropical forest. Logging (legal and illegal) has contributed to tropical forest degradation and biodiversity loss. How does it happen? Selective logging practice is a common system being used in logging industry in the tropics. Selective logging is a practice whereby only commercial and merchantable trees are harvested leaving behind uncommercial and unmerchantable trees in the forests. Uncommercial tree is tree which is unsuitable for industrial wood products; thus has less value in the wood market, while unmerchantable tree is tree that its size, quality and condition are not suitable for wood market. Tropical forest is uneven-aged forest, having many trees of various ages or age classes.

Tropical forest regenerates naturally. Although tropical forest contains many thousands of tree species, only about a dozen or less of the tree species have commercial values or are traded in the world’s wood market. This is how forest degradation starts. As a matter of the real world practices, loggers as well as forest dwellers when entered the forests look for commercial timber species and harvest. Although they are likely to fell only the merchantable trees, unmerchantable trees are likely to be felled as well when there are no more commercial merchantable trees left. So, every time the logging takes place, commercially trees are targeted again and again, leaving only UNWANTED and uncommercial trees in the forest. As the time goes by, commercial trees area gradually degraded, and even disappeared leading to the degradation of the forest and biodiversity loss. Forest dependent communities suffer the most from such degradation since commercial trees from which they collect non-forest products (resins, bee honey and others) are losing. Traditionally in Cambodia, newly married couples had inherited some dozen of trees (commercial trees) from their parents for living in stead of money.

One would ask about the forest laws and logging regulations in the tropics. As per my knowledge, almost every country has them, but enforcement is the problem. There are high illegal logging rates (up to about 80% in some countries), corruption and political uncertainties in the tropics. Political situation and commitment play an important role is illegal logging. Most illegal logging usually occurs when political situation in a country in concern is not stable such as during the Coup De’tat, civil war and election campaigns.

Furthermore, it has been estimated globally that about one-fifth of the wood production comes from illegal source. The continuous illegal logging activities may also have resulted from the availability of markets that provide access to the illegally logged timber. With high illegal logging rate and its continuous existence, it is clearly that valuable trees (commercial and merchantable trees) are being targeted, and therefore degraded. As tropical forest degradation and deforestation continue, the loss of biodiversity in the tropics also continues. The non-inclusion of tropical forest management in the present Kyoto Protocol agreement has discouraged sound forest management in the tropics.

Kim is a forester scientist. His views will be posted regularly on the ForestClimate.Net. ForestClimate.Net is dedicated to providing the recent information on the management and conservation of tropical forests, and climate policy development. Visit its website at