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Nearly 200 arrests in Interpol crackdown on illegal logging

February 20, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Police have made nearly 200 arrests and seized millions of dollars worth of timber in an international crackdown on illegal logging in the Americas, Interpol announced this week.

The vast operation took place from September through November in a dozen countries across Central and South America, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela, the international organization said Tuesday. It billed “Operation Lead” as its first international action against illegal logging, which is believed to net $30 billion to $100 billion annually.

Illegal logging regularly crisscrosses borders, making it harder for the  police of each country to track and stop the perpetrators, Interpol said. Environmental watchdog group Global Witness said many governments have “turned a blind eye” to corruption in the timber industry, allowing the criminals to escape punishment.

Though local people are often blamed, “much more damage is done by big companies connected to business, political and criminal elites, who systematically skirt laws and regulations in order to destroy forests at an industrial scale,” Billy Kyte of Global Witness said Wednesday. “This is a disaster for the people who live in the forest and for the planet as a whole.”

The Interpol operation “is a big step in the right direction and must be followed up with swift enforcement and prosecutions,” Kyte said.

Interpol estimated that more than 2,000 truckloads of timber worth about $8 million were seized in its operation in the fall. Police are still investigating 118 people in addition to the 194 arrests made, Interpol said.

The problem of illegal logging stretches far beyond the Americas, gutting forests in Indonesia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Laos, Liberia and elsewhere. Wood that was illegally taken now makes up 15% to 30% of the worldwide timber trade, Interpol and the U.N. Environment Program said in a report released in September.

Scientists and activists have sought technological solutions to stop the trade, such as DNA testing and even attaching tracking devices to trees; activists have also pushed for stiffer regulation to prevent the sale of illegal timber.

Besides devastating forests, illegal logging has immediate human costs. About  one in five people relies  on forests for their daily needs, according to Global Witness. Illegal logging has also been linked to slavery in the Amazon, where companies have set up remote guarded camps, recruited employees and then forced them to work for little or no pay, the anti-slavery group Not For Sale said this month.

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