Brazil Amazon logging
Illegally-cut mahogany wood trunks are seen floating over Iriri River in Altamira, in the Amazon state of Para in Brazil. REUTERS

Interpol says its recent arrest of nearly 200 people suspected of engaging in illegal logging and timber trafficking across several Latin American countries is just the beginning of a wider crackdown on a worldwide criminal industry it says could be worth up to $100 billion.

The first phase of the effort, dubbed “Operation Lead,” took place from September through November last year, spanned 12 countries across Central and South America and resulted in the seizure of around $8 million worth of illegal timber.

“Operation Lead marks the beginning of Interpol’s effort to assist its member countries to combat illegal logging and forestry crime, which affects not only the health, security and quality of life of local forest-dependent communities, but also causes significant costs to governments in terms of lost economic revenue,” said David Higgins, program manager of the Environmental Crime Program at Interpol, in a statement.

Interpol carried out its operations in cooperation with law enforcement agencies in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

“The intelligence gathered during this first phase of Operation Lead will be used as a foundation for more incisive actions against illegal logging to be taken by Interpol, in cooperation with its member countries,” said Davyth Stewart, an intelligence officer at Interpol and team leader for Project Leaf, Interpol’s global initiative to support governments in tackling illegal logging and timber trafficking.

According to Interpol, the illegal timber industry is valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $100 billion, but has been difficult to gauge due to its wide breadth and clandestine nature.

It is most prevalent in South America’s Amazon region and the Congo Basin in Africa, as well as in Indonesia, Russia and parts of Eats Africa, though it occurs in various degrees in most countries around the world where forests exist.

The World Bank estimates that illegal logging costs the legal global timber trade $10 billion in lost revenues every year and an additional $5 billion in losses for governments from taxes and duties not levied.

“Mostly controlled by organized crime, this money is untaxed and is used to pay corrupt government officials at all levels,” read a World Bank press release from 2012.

“We need to fight organized crime in illegal logging the way we go after gangsters selling drugs or racketeering,” said Jean Pesme, manager of the World Bank's Financial Market Integrity Team, in a statement.

While organized crime represent a major factor in the illegal timber trade, the World Wildlife Foundation points out that many poor communities living near forests are engaged as well.

“Increased demand for forests products has brought some financial benefits for poor people living near to forests,” the WWF says on its website. “But there is also evidence to show that usually, poor communities who are completely dependent on forests lose out to powerful interests, logging companies and migrant workers who reap most of the benefits.”

“Around the world, many forest-dwelling communities have little control over ownership of their land,” it adds. “This makes them vulnerable to outsiders who try to gain access to their forest, which may cause repression and human rights violations. Or just plain exploitation.”

The WWF cautions that many operations to crack down on illegal logging often fail to target those in positions of power who are responsible.

“Too often, crackdowns unfairly single out poor people and small-scale operators and simply bypass well-connected and protected people,” it says.

The details of Interpol’s operation and of those arrested remain limited at the moment. The agency noted that another 100 people are currently under investigation.