Combating Illegal Logging: Why the U.S. Should Stand Behind “Lacey”

A recent investigation into whether or not the Gibson Guitar Company illegally imported wood into the U.S. has led some politicos to call the entire “Lacey Act amendments of 2008” into question. This is a mistake, as the law both makes common sense and is in the U.S. national interest.

These Lacey Act amendments make it illegal to import wood or plants into the United States that have been illegally harvested abroad. Beyond being in our national interest, the law has wide-ranging benefits. In 2007, a Chatam House report estimated that in five of the top 10 most forested countries on the planet, over half of the trees cut down are done illegally. The Lacey Act closed the U.S. market to these illegally-harvested products as both a moral stand against illegal trade and to choke off a major revenue source for those who engage in it. Implementation is critical to combat the impact of illegal logging, which includes:

1. Undermining rule of law.To function on a large and profitable scale, illegal loggers typically rely on bribes, violence, or the intimidation of communities and officials. Keeping the U.S. market closed to illegally harvested goods helps countries enforce their laws and collect revenue to strengthen capability. How does it work? By requiring U.S. importers to declare their products have been harvested legally, both the in-country harvester and the U.S. importer have an incentive to act within the law. And with both in-country law enforcement and U.S. customs sharing responsibility for ensuring the legality of wood and plant products, the result is increased enforcement and adherence to the rule of law worldwide.

2. Fueling natural resource degradation. Export bans and harvesting restrictions are put in place for a reason when species are over-harvested, pushed to the brink of extinction, or located in parks or on private property. The U.S. cannot turn a blind eye or undermine another country’s efforts to institute sustainable business practices, preserve its natural heritage, or protect property rights. In addition, poor and marginalized people, such as indigenous groups, are most likely to directly depend upon these resources for survival. Natural resource destruction impoverishes these local communities while weakening the natural systems and biodiversity upon which we all depend.

3. Undercutting responsible actors, including U.S. businesses. The illegal extraction of natural resources devastates honest actors abroad and here at home. Illegally-harvested species by their nature are not subject to proper certification and taxes. Thus not only is this important source of revenue denied to producer countries (as in Indonesia, which in 2007 estimated lost revenue of $1-2 billion per year), but illegal products also typically sell for much less than properly harvested and certified goods. The result is harm to both the producer country, in lost income, and honest producers including U.S. companies whose prices are vastly undercut and less competitive on the global market. The U.S. forest producers and wood products industry estimates that illegal trade costs $1 billion annually in depressed prices and loss of market.

“Lacey” is a minimalist approach with big benefits in terms of promoting effective governance and environmental sustainability around the world. Anything less than its full implementation poses a threat to U.S. producers and employers, natural resources and biodiversity, non-U.S. producer nations, and the work of civil society organizations, including InterAction’s members. It’s time for each of these communities to speak out and stand behind “Lacey” implementation.

For more information about the interconnections between development and conservation, see InterAction’s latest policy paper, “The Nature of Development.”