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Illegal logging

Scope and definitions

Illegal logging, in its narrowest sense, involves the taking of protected tree species, taking of timber from protected areas or outside authorised concessions and taking timber in excess of specified quotas. In reality, it envelops every step along the timber chain-of-custody. The fact that so much timber is illegally harvested is the simple consequence of weak law enforcement and endemic corruption. The use of bribery and intimidation enables the unlawful procurement of logging concessions, encourages officials to turn a blind eye to illegal activity and increases the risk of displacement for forest-dwelling communities. These co-conspirators additionally facilitate the processing, transportation and trade in illegal logs via the use of unlicensed sawmills, a 'no-questions asked' passage to ports and false declarations regarding the size, quality, origin and species of timber.

The scale and impact of illegal logging is substantial. If just the Asia-Pacific region is considered, illegal logging is rife in Indonesia (including West Papua), Burma, Cambodia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and plagues other nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam (Schloenhardt 2008). Indonesia is an especially notorious domicile for illegal logging, as evidenced by the rampant destruction of its forests in Sumatera and the four Kalimantan provinces of Indonesian Borneo, much of which is done illegally. According to the Indonesian Government, an approximate 2.8 million hectares of forests are being illegally logged each year and if this rate of logging is to continue, Indonesia will be bereft of its forests (and the enormous faunal and floral biodiversity it supports) within 20 years (ITTO 2005). Worldwide, the sale of goods derived from illegally-procured timber is worth an estimated $15b a year (UK HCEAC 2006).

The extraction, processing and sale of timber in Australia is mostly conducted within legal provisions, although there are opposing and very vocal views as to this legality. While logging and timber extraction offences are not unknown, there is 'no evidence of systematic illegal logging taking place within Australia' (Schloenhardt 2008: 79). It is Australia's role as an 'unwitting' beneficiary of the illegal logging taking place elsewhere that is possibly the more immediate issue, through:

  • the importation of timber and timber products from countries either known as sites of unchecked illegal logging activity or as passage points in the illegal trade; and
  • the absence of a nationally-applied scheme by which origin and chain-of-custody information is made available to importers, retailers and consumers alike.

Laws and regulation

International controls and related measures

Logging is the one practice of environmental consequence that is not controlled by any formal, overarching international treaty other than CITES which protects some tropical hardwood species from trade. Arrangements between neighbouring or primary export-import states exist or are in development but controls against the illegal trade are mostly dependent on national laws. In countries notorious for systemic illegal logging, these laws are seen to be weak or in need of strengthening and often counteracted by endemic corruption (Brack 2006).

Alongside working with supply countries to build capacity to prevent illegal logging (see Magrath et al. 2007), consumer countries have simultaneously responded with measures to impede importation of illegally-sourced timber and timber products. Rather than targeting logging at the source point, which has produced negligible results, these measures target the end-point of the trade. This tactic is formulated on the premise that blocking consumption of illegal timber will have the effect of disrupting supply, with the eventual outcome of a substantial decrease in illegal logging practices. For example, the US Congress passed an amendment to the Lacey Act 1900 in May 2008, creating a requirement for importers to declare the species and country of origin of any wood or wood product entering the United States (EIA 2008a). The amendment establishes criminal and civil penalties on any company knowingly or unknowingly 'participating' in the illegal trade. Within the European Union, the EU chapter of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) is fine-tuning the implementation of a licensing scheme facilitating the import of only those timber products that are harvested and produced in accordance with the forestry laws of the producing company (Commission of the European Union 2005). The EU FLEGT licensing scheme depends on the setting up of bilateral FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between timber producing and consumption countries (Commission of the European Union 2005). So far, a VPA has been established with Ghana, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon and negotiations are ongoing with Indonesia, Malaysia, Liberia and the Central Africa Republic.

A recent proposal by the EU Commission is the adoption of a regulation stipulating operators must use due diligence to verify the legality of timber products sold in the European Union (Commission of the European Union 2008a, 2008b). A criticism directed at the proposed regulation was that it would not directly prohibit the importation or selling of illegal timber in the European Union (EIA 2008b). The method of due diligence recommended lacked standardised rules on how to monitor and enforce the regulation and a common set of sanctions. Further, it would only target companies that 'place' timber products on the market, ignoring the 'downstream companies underpinning the demand chain' (EIA 2008b: 2). The regulation has since been amended by the European Parliament so that it is an offence to sell timber and timber products sourced from illegal-logging ventures and includes a requirement that each step of the supply chain is fully tracked.

Governments from Belgium, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Japan and New Zealand have also turned to public procurement policies to guarantee the legality and sustainability of imported timber and timber products (Brack 2008). The aim of these policies is to procure timber harvested in accordance with international and national laws promoting sustainable forestry practices; legality is further stipulated in the policies of France, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Methods used to verify the sustainability and/or legality of imported products vary but centre on the use of forest and timber certification schemes combined with assessment of forest certification and supplier claims (Brack 2008).

National controls and related measures

Australian forests

Australian native forests and plantations (of native and exotic tree species) are Commonwealth, state or privately owned. Different tenure arrangements exist within state-owned forests, including nature reserves, national parks and conservation parks, forests for recreation and conservation purposes, timber reserves and multiple-use forests, freehold land and privately-managed leasehold land. Each of the six states employs a mix of management arrangements for state-owned forests and plantations (see Table 28), mostly but not always divided between the management of multiple-purpose native and exotic species forests, and land set aside as national parks, nature and conservation reserves. Responsibility for management and/or commercial forestry operations lies in some jurisdictions with government established commercial business or public trade enterprises, such as Forests NSW (which sits within the NSW Department of Industry and Investment) and the WA Forest Product Commission, or with commercial enterprises working in collaboration with state governments (eg Forestry Tasmania and Forestry SA). In the Australian Capital Territory, reserves and commercial pine plantations are managed by Parks, Conservation and Lands, under the Department of Territory and Municipal Services. Few forestry operations exist in the Northern Territory.

Table 28: Management arrangements for state forests
Jurisdiction AgencyManagement responsibility
NSW Forests NSW (Department of Industry and Investment) 2.4 million hectares of native forests and planted forests of pine and native species
Department of Environment and Climate Change National parks and reserves
Department of Lands Some State Crown land
Vic Department of Sustainability and Environment 3.4 million hectares of state forest
VicForests Harvesting and commercial sale of timber from forests in eastern Victoria
Parks Victoria National, state and wilderness parks
Department of Primary Industry Private forestry (native forests and plantations on private land)
Qld Primary Industries and Fisheries, Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation 56 million hectares of state forest and purpose-planted plantations (6 million hectares used for commercial production of forests products)
Queensland Parks and Wildlife National parks and reserves
WA DEC 24 million hectares of state forest, national parks, conservation parks, nature reserves, other Crown reserves and unvested Crown land
Forest Products Commission Harvesting and sale of timber from state forest and timber reserves
SAa Forestry SA 125,000 hectares of plantations
23,900 hectares of native forest reserves (for conservation)
Department for Environment and Heritage National parks
Tas Forestry Tasmania 1.5 million hectares of multiple use state forest (half available for timber production and includes 178,000 hectares of forest reserves)
Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service Protected forests and reserves
ACT Environment ACT; Parks, Conservation and Land 26,000 hectares of public land
NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport Pastoral and Aboriginal lands, and conservation reserves

a: PIRSA Forestry is responsible for development and implementation of forest policy

A relatively complex array of legislation is in place regarding the management and harvesting of Australia's forests and plantations. Laws pertinent to state forests (in the 6 states) and their commercial exploitation are transcribed in principal forest or forestry statute(s) and associated regulations (see Table 29). The spread of tenure arrangements across distinct forest holdings and the different purposes for these holdings means that other legislation may also be applicable. These include conservation, native vegetation, national parks, environmental protection, water, land use, planning and development statues. Queensland is a case in point. The Forestry Act 1959 stipulates laws on the classification, reservation and management of state forests and timber reserves (parts 3 and 4) and the control and disposal of forests products (part 5). No formal laws exist on the management and harvesting of private native forests and are controlled instead via amendments to the Vegetation Management Act 1999 on forest practices. The Integrated Planning Act 1997 exerts additional control on forestry operations on freehold or Indigenous land through the inclusion of 'conducting a forest practice' (s 1.3.5) as a form of 'operational work' relevant to development. Arrangements for leasing Queensland state forest and national parks, and acquisition of permits to occupy and use forest entitlements, are described in the Land Act 1994 and the Nature Conservation Act 1992. Finally, the Environmental Protection Act 1994 guards against destruction of protected species and environmental harms respectively.

Table 29: Forestry statutesa
JurisdictionPrimary statute(s)
NSW Forestry Act 1916
Plantations and Reafforestation Act 1999
Timber Marketing Act 1977
Vic Forests Act 1958
Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987
Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004
Qld Forestry Act 1959
WA Forest Products Act 2000
Forest Management Regulations 1993
SA Forestry Act 1950
Local Government (Forestry Reserves) Act 1944
Forest Property Act 2000
Tas Forest Practices Act 1985

a: There are no forestry statutes per se in the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory

With the emphasis now on sustainable forest management, jurisdictions with sizeable forest coverage and significant investment in forest industries have assembled forest management plans and timber production codes of practice and/or implemented additional legislation (eg Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 (Vic)) to ensure sustainable practices are followed. Code of practice guidelines serve as regulatory instruments for the timber production trade and outline rules and responsibilities concerning forest planning and management (including retainment of environmental values relating to watercourse, soil and biodiversity protection), forest regeneration and harvesting (felling and processing). Examples include Queensland's Code of Practice for Native Forest Timber Production, WA's Code of Practice for Timber Plantations, Tasmania's Forest Practices Code and Victoria's Code of Practice for Timber Production.

The Australian Government has also entered into Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs; under the auspices of the Regional Forests Agreement Act 2002) with four states (New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania) outlining 20 year plans fostering the conservation and sustainable management of native forests in these states. Ten RFAs have so far been negotiated:

  • New South Wales (Eden, northeast and southern regions);
  • Victoria (Central Highlands, Gippsland, East Gippsland, and northeast and west regions);
  • Western Australia (southwest region); and
  • Tasmania (whole of state—Tasmanian RFA and supplementary Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement).

At the national level, the EPBC Act 1999 protects against illegal logging through protection of threatened species and ecological communities, preservation of biodiversity, recognition and safeguarding of World Heritage and National Heritage sites and specification of principles for ecological sustainable development.

Two forest certification schemes are in use in Australia–the Australian Forest Certification Scheme (AFCS) and FSC certification scheme. These schemes certify both the responsible and sustainable management of forests and plantations and the chain-of-custody, from harvesting through processing, manufacturing, distribution and sales.

Overseas forests

The Australian Government, through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), is engaged with various intergovernmental forums such as the United Nations Forum on Forests, East Asia and Pacific FLEGT and the International Tropical Timber Organisation to encourage and promote sustainable forest management practices and prevent illegal harvesting (Davidson 2007). In 2007 the Australian Government DAFF published the discussion paper Bringing Down the Axe on Illegal Logging which detailed proposed government policies to stem the flow of illegally-derived timber goods into the country, as well as ensure Australian timber is harvested legally and sustainability (Aust DAFF 2007). Proposed policies and measures centred on the creation of a nationally-consistent timber legality verification scheme (domestic and imported) and the broader use of forest certification schemes. In January 2010, an Australian Government-commissioned regulation impact statement concluded that the costs of regulating timber imports would outweigh the benefits gained and recommended Australia adopt a non-regulatory response (The Centre for International Economics 2010). In the absence of a national approach, a small number of Australian companies have independently introduced verification schemes to authenticate timber imported into the country.

Timber importers represented by the Australian Timber Importers Federation approved in 2008 a code of ethics, to support forestry practices that are legally conducted with respect to source and yield, utilise multiple forest resources and preserve both biodiversity and the rights of local forest inhabitants (ATIF 2008). In upholding the code of ethics, importers are expected to formally confirm the chain-of-custody by requesting documentation from suppliers that verifies timber has been taken in accordance with the laws of the country of origin, including compliance with that country's forest management practices. Importers are also expected to have timber certified under a recognised certification scheme. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are two countries highlighted as to receive particular attention.

Individual companies have also decided to implement their own certification schemes. Simmonds Lumber, for example, joined forces with the Singapore-based timber auditing company Centisource to enable verification of the legality of timber imported into Australia. In this scheme, trees from legal concessions are genetically profiled, logs brought to sawmills are matched against onsite genetic records and timber is processed under a strict auditing regime managed by Centisource (Simmonds Lumber 2007).

Nature and extent

In situ illegal logging is not considered to be a problem for Australia. Forestry authorities are expected to audit forestry operations as to their compliance with sustainable forest management and extraction practices, and the results of these audits are published in reports such as the Victorian EPA Forest Audit. The most recent of the aforementioned series for the year 2006–07, found an overall compliance of 94 percent for the sampled coupes (Vic EPA 2008c). While this and similar reports provide extensive detail on code of conduct non-compliance, little or no data is published on 'actual' offences and how they are followed up.

The true legality of certain forest operations is, according to some commentators, open to debate (Ginting 2005; Green, Ward & McConnachie 2007; Milieudefensie et al. 2006). Green et al. (2007) take as their example the issue of old-growth logging in Tasmania. The felling of old-growth forest is banned (eg in Western Australia) or restricted (eg in Victoria) elsewhere in Australia but in Tasmania it continues apace, where clear felling, an otherwise prohibited or controlled form of harvesting, is the dominant method of extraction. Forestry Tasmania, the agency responsible for most forestry operations in Tasmania, is largely self-regulated and exempt from certain provisions in state and Commonwealth conservation laws and resource management codes of conduct. When a state-condoned practice produces the level of destruction old-growth felling does, violates standards respected elsewhere and contests social norms (as exemplified by public opposition to old-growth logging), the demarcation between legal and illegal forestry becomes blurred (Green, Ward & McConnachie 2007). It follows that any analysis of crime in this context should consider

…behaviour that is both deviant, in the sense that it is subject to, and significantly affected by, social processes of censure and sanction, and 'criminal' in the sense that it violates normative standards…(Green, Ward & McConnachie 2007: 1)

Demand in Australia for timber and timber products far outweighs what the local industry can provide and imports from overseas are hence a major component of what is available locally. Difficulties, however, continue to exist in identifying the source and legality of logs and processed timber, and it is more than likely that some of the timber and wood products coming into Australia were harvested illegally. Schloenhardt's (2008) examination of illegal logging in the Asia-Pacific region found little information on the country of origin of wood products entering Australia and the estimated volume of timber illegally derived, other than that published in an Australian Government DAFF-commissioned report on illegal logging. This report estimated that nine percent of all 'forest products' imported into Australia between 1 July 2003 and 30 June 2004, with a total value of $452m, were probably illegally derived (Jaakko Pöyry Consulting 2005). Paper and paper products and wooden furniture comprised the majority of forest product imports, followed by sawn timber and wooden items such as doors, moulding and flooring. The proportion of these products deemed 'suspect' (as to the legality of the timber source) was as high as 22 percent for wooden furniture and 14 percent for miscellaneous wooden items (see Table 30).

Table 30: Volume and value of wood products imported into Australia: Total and proportion suspected to be illegal, 1 July 2003–30 June 2004
Product type Volume (m3) Value ($m) % illegal
Total Illegal Total Illegal
Sawn timber 871 72 494 50 8
Pulp 377 0 235 0 0
Paper and paperboard 1,557 11 2,014 71 1
Paper manufactures n/a n/a 369 11 3
Recovered paper 22 0 5 0 0
Wood based panels 327 37 191 23 11
Veneer 15 n/a 2.3 n.a 16
Plywood 176.3 n/a 112.8 n.a 19
Furniture n/a n/a 1000 214 22
Miscellaneous forest products n/a 112 n/a 83 14
Total n/a n/a 4893 452 9

Source: Adapted from Tables 3–7, Jaakko Pöyry Consulting 2005


Indonesia features prominently as a country of origin for hardwood-based plywoods and tissue paper imported into Australia, and Malaysia and Indonesia of wooden doors, mouldings and flooring materials. The legality of woods used in these latter products are thought to be especially dubious, as they are produced in-country and most illegally harvested timber is processed in situ (Jaakko Pöyry Consulting 2005; Seneca Creek Associates & Wood Resources International 2004). Wooden furniture is another problematic item; 13 percent and seven percent respectively of wooden furniture imports in 2003–04 were from Malaysia and Indonesia respectively. Of interest is that the largest supplier of wooden furniture to Australia is China (43% of imports). China continues to be the single largest importer of tropical hardwoods, with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand as the primary sources (ITTO 2007), but it is also a primary consumer of illegal timber, particularly from Indonesia (eg see EIA & Telepak 2005). Printing paper mostly comes from Finland, although Indonesia again is a major supplier. Finland's timber industry is tightly regulated and thus an unlikely contributor to the illegal trade, but they do process logs originating in Russia where controls on logging activity are not nearly as stringent.

More recent data on timber imports into Australia come from annual reports produced by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) but there is little on the definitive legality or illegality of the timber products brought in. In 2007, Australia imported 533,000 cubic metres of sawn timber, 124,000 cubic metres of plywood and 30,000 cubic metres of veneer (ITTO 2007). Imports of whole logs were comparatively little. Of the timber products imported in 2007, 20 percent or more came from tropical wood sources. Tropical wood, particularly the hardwoods, are the timber species most desired by consumers and hence mostly targeted by illegal logging ventures. The ITTO defines major importers of tropical woods as those importing at least 100,000 cubic metres of one or more tropical product types and based on this definition, Australia, in 2007, was a major importer of tropical wood-derived sawn timber. Some of that timber was merbau, one of the two CITES-listed varieties of tropical hardwood (along with ramin) that is being logged at unsustainable levels (EIA & Telepak 2004).

A survey of timber importers, wholesalers, industries and hardware suppliers revealed the general absence in Australia of a 'structured' system enabling identification of 'suspect' timber products (Jaakko Pöyry Consulting 2004: 13). The physical characteristics and price of some imports exposes their likely illegality, such as sawn timber which tends to be cheaper and exhibits a poorer standard of finish. Other products derived from illegal harvests are not so easily recognised.


There is no published data on sentences received for breaches of forestry Acts or regulations. The receipt of illegally-derived timber and timber products is not considered a criminal offence in Australia.


Illegal logging is the least frequently perpetrated category of environmental crime in Australia. Available data and Schloenhardt's (2008) review of illegal logging in the Asia-Pacific region suggests that forestry operations in Australia are, for the most part, adhering to forestry laws and standards of harvesting and processing. However, the limited nature of the data precludes any analysis as to what offences are actually committed, how and by whom, and how damaging to the environment these offences are.

For Australia, then, illegal logging is largely an end-user issue and our complicity is established through poor or non-existent import laws and uninformed consumer choice. A substantial proportion of timber imported into Australia either comes from countries where illegal logging is endemic (Indonesia) or via countries that regularly accept illegally-harvested timber (China). However, unlike the European Union and the United States, no uniform, national measures have been introduced or recommended to halt the importation of illegal timber into Australia. Some industry groups have taken their own steps to verify the origin of imported timber but most cannot or do not. Consumers are just as culpable, due to ignorance, lack of concern or not having the means to verify ethical wood purchases.

With only small gains being made in habitat countries engaged in or implicit in illegal logging, the role of nations such as Australia in halting the crime by plugging the trade at the consumption end is being given greater credence. This departs from customary environmental controls described in other theme sections and represents how more laterally-based options for control are necessary for more intransigent cases of environmental offending.

Last updated
3 November 2017