The shift from traditional logging methods to modern international methods has been disastrous for forests. Traditionally only large trees only were removed, and few species were desired. Forests were permitted to regenerate naturally for long periods of time before reharvesting. But modern timbering involves the extraction of high yields per unit area, the removal of smaller trees and of trees of many species (some of which may be “keystone” species, and/or the source of food for many animals). In addition, cutting cycles are much shorter than traditional long fallow periods, and cut-over areas are often not permitted (or cannot) reforest naturally. Even if reforested, these areas are usually impoverished, since they are basically converted into single-species tree plantations. Large-scale logging operations require large roads, with consequences discussed under “Timber trade” (see Part VII). Additionally, the huge modern markets for timber have skewed the economic picture, and the development of modern logging machinery has made it possible to cut vast quantities of timber at rates previously impossible. The forestry sector has greatly distorted the forest products industry. For example, in 1938 in Indonesia, the relative value of timber to non-timber forest products was 55% to 45%, but since then the timber trade has become inflated, and revenues for minor forest products have declined precipitously. In truth, many of these products have been superseded by other, synthetic substances, and so there is less incentive to conserve forests for their products.

Much of the logging occurring in tropical rainforests is illegal, accounting for perhaps as much as 65% of the world supply of timber (Haugen, 2002). Illegal logging occurs even in national parks and reserves, and includes the cutting of protected species, underreporting and overcutting, smuggling, and logging without permits, among other violations. This type of activity is rampant especially in Southeast Asia, some African countries and parts of Brazil. The loss of revenue to the government of Cambodia from illegal logging is equivalent to the entire national budget of that country, but the high government officials control this trade (along with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge). And Cameroon lost 50% of its potential tax revenues because of illegal logging during the decade of the 1990’s (Abramovitz, 1998). Much of the wood imported into the United States and the European Union is derived from illegal sources, yet it is not mandatory to confiscate these imports. Such official complaisance – indeed, complicity – with illegal activities to satisfy domestic markets is driving much tropical deforestation today.

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