Most of the time, illegal timber enters supply chains undetected. But when it’s discovered, authorities often seize it. The volume of seized timber can literally be boatloads.

A boatload of seized timber
2,374 cubic meters of logs and 62 cubic meters of lumber were seized in Operation Neptune in September of 2020. Photo: ASCOM / SEGUP

So what happens to all this timber? Sometimes the decision is made to destroy it. But why? And how can this be avoided?

What happens to seized timber?

What happens to confiscated timber varies from case to case, but common outcomes include:

  • auctions;
  • donations;
  • use in public works projects (to build bridges, school furniture, etc);
  • long-term storage (in which it often degrades beyond use);
  • selling back to the alleged offenders (a la corruption), and last, but not least;
  • destroying it.

Here’s what destroying timber looks like…

Authorities destroy seized timber in Ze Doca, Brazil
The Maranhão Military Fire Brigade destroy timber seized in Zé Doca, Brazil in October, 2020. Photo: CBMMA
Authorities destroy seized timber in the Ucayali River
A man uses a chainsaw to destroy part of a timber raft seized by authorities in the Ucayali River in October of 2020. Photo: FEMA
A machine is used to destroy seized timber in Houston, Texas
A front loader is used to destroy seized timber in a Texas landfill in 2016. Source: Houston Chronicle
Police destroy seized timber by setting it on fire.
Police destroy seized timber in Aceh Tamiang, Indonesia in October of 2020. Photo: Serambinews

Seizing timber to save forests

Suppliers of illegal wood can undercut the prices of legitimate businesses and steal their market share. This puts the “good guys” at a disadvantage and encourages deforestation. Why manage forests to make less money? Why not raise cattle instead?

Governments try to tip the scale in favor of good wood suppliers by making illegal wood more costly, through penalties like fines, jail, and asset forfeiture – the confiscation of timber.

Taking timber off of the market can result in large financial losses for the owners. After detained in Cat Lai Port in August of 2020, sixty containers of Rosewood went unclaimed for at least two months. The value of the shipment was estimated to be US$ 860,000. That means someone was owed quite a bit of money, or took a significant blow to their cash flow.

Inspection of a container of Rosewood in Cat Lai Port, Vietnam in August of 2020. Photo: Haiquan

Confiscating illegal timber also reduces supply. This can increase demand for legal products in the short term. Both of these effects of timber confiscation can be good for legal suppliers and forests. But why destroy the seized timber?

Why destroy timber to save forests?

While seizing illegal wood increases the cost of trading it, and provides a strong deterrent, destroying the wood just doesn’t seem right to most people. So why does it happen? Here are three reasons:

  1. Lengthy legal process. The legal process to determine whether the wood is illegal or not, can take many years. For example, in Brazil, it was only decided in October of 2020 that a sawmill manager wood be prosecuted for allegedly storing 842 cubic meters of logs illegally in 2016.
  2. Costly logistics. After confiscation, the cost of transporting and storing timber in a neutral location can be expensive, and even then, the wood may deteriorate beyond use.
  3. Re-entrance to markets. If confiscated timber is left on site, the timber can still get sold and re-enter markets. This apparently happened in Amapá, Brazil in August of 2020. Even after arrests were made, and a lumber company’s yard was closed by Federal Police and IBAMA, the company allegedly continued to operate and sell seized timber.
Federal police stands next to logs in Amapa, Brazil
During Operação Usurpação in Amapá, Brazil police allegedly discovered seized timber had been sold. Photo: PF
Map of approximate location where a sawmill is accused of illegal storage of timber
In October of 2020, the MPF decided to prosecute a sawmill manager for illegal storage of 842m3 of logs that allegedly occurred in 2016. Reference: Timber Risk Map

Before timber is seized

Recent evidence suggests that, in certain regions with high levels of illegal wood flows, it’s not market demand that drives the illegal wood flows, but the supply of illegal timber.

Take for example, what happened in Brazil during the first half of 2020. Demand for Brazilian hardwoods from the Amazon decreased significantly.

But despite this, the seizure of illegal wood sky-rocketed.

If, and where large volumes of illegal timber are being harvested primarily for economic reasons other than timber sales – like the conversion of forestland to other land uses, destroying illegal timber already in supply chains is not going to decrease the supply of illegal timber in markets over the long run.

Ideally, the illegal harvest of timber is stopped on site, at the point of harvest – where supply originates.

Towards sustainable deterrence of illegal timber

If we want to stop destroying wood to save forests, the focus of law enforcement should be on the point of harvest, where the timber is first entering supply chains illegally.

In some places, this is already happening. Satellite imagery is becoming increasingly easier to access, and much more precise. Using daily satellite images, the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso can identify illegal deforestation as small as one hectare. It allows them to detect illegal timber harvests almost in real time. This method of forest monitoring will become common.

Buyer’s of wood products can also play a role. Data on illegal wood flows has traditionally been generic. The locations, methods, and other data on illegal wood flow risks are becoming increasingly easier to access. Methods for understanding the forest origins of wood products and their legality are advancing.

satellite image comparison of timber harvest
TimberSat™ uses before and after satellite images of timber harvest sites to analyze claims of forest origin of wood products.

But the solutions will not only involve increased forest monitoring, and supply-chain transparency. In the longer term, land and forest policy reform will be important. The high cost of compliance with bureaucratic forest regulations incentivizes the commercialization of illegal timber. Policies that lower the cost of legal timber production are necessary.

Then, maybe, the practice of destroying seized timber to save forests will become a thing of the past.

Concerned about legal risks in timber supply chains? Join TimberCheck™ or check the Timber Risk Map. Want to know where your lumber originated? Start a WoodFlow™. Curious what the forest looks like after the harvest, request access to TimberSat™.

Header Photo Credit: CBMMA