Forests play a crucial role for many countries around the world in terms of environmental impact, food security and social wellbeing. The World Forestry Congress held in Durban in 2015 highlights their importance, as well as the UN’s 2nd and 15th Sustainable Development Goals—respectively, “end hunger, achieve food security … and promote sustainable agriculture” and “protect … terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, … and halt biodiversity loss”. Stopping deforestation is one of the main aims in this regard1. However, to this day many land-use protection policies face challenges to their enforcement. One of the causes for this is the staggering part of illegal deforestation in the total global deforestation.

The importance of illegal deforestation

Half of global deforestation is due to commercial agriculture: in other words, through logging and farming1. This is different from some forest fires. In Australia2, for instance, they are due to arson and not for commercial logging purposes.

The percentage for commercial agriculture is higher in tropical countries: there, it accounted for 71% between 2000 and 20123. Of that 71%, as much as half was due to illegal deforestation

. Additionally, a big percentage of the illegal deforestation is intended for exportation. In short, that means the people buying illegal timber or wood products either do not have information about their supply chain, or do not care much whether their products are legal or not.

Forest areas are cut down for pulp, plantation wood and timber trade as well as for agricultural commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef. A 2015 study showed that more than 30% of the wood supplied for Indonesia’s Industrial Forestry sector was illegal wood. It likely came from trees unsustainably harvested during the clear-cutting of forests for palm oil plantations4.

Illegal logging is a complex issue that involves not only sellers, but also governments and timber buyers, whether they be local or international5. Indeed, in this case, if there was no demand of wood to illegal loggers, they would not be harvesting as much timber.

Why and where is there illegal deforestation?

Deforestation happens on the largest scale in countries which have the most forest cover: that is, in tropical rainforests. Many countries in this geographical area lack good governance and clear policies in terms of land-use: the regulations are often complex, contradictory, and implemented with great difficulty6. In some cases, forestry companies have also had a hard time respecting them. The three most deforested countries, which as a result also have the highest part of illegal deforestation, are the following:

  1. Brazil lost 30.6 Mha (million hectares) of the Amazon forest from 2000 to 2012, mainly for soy and beef farming. As much as 79% of that deforestation was illegal.
  2. Indonesia accounted for 15.5 Mha of forest loss, due to palm oil and timber, of which 80% was illegal.
  3. Malaysia lost 4.7 Mha of forest because of palm oil monocultures. 43% was illegal logging. Additionally, 90% of the deforestation was intended for exportation.

This means that a major part of the palm oil that other countries import from South-East Asia is sourced illegally—according to these numbers, as much as 39% of the Malaysian palm oil.

illegal deforestation
Palm Oil Plantation, Malaysia7

But then, why do we focus on illegality of logging?6 Does the legality make a difference in terms of land-use?

How is illegal logging aggravating environmental degradation?

In countries where the most deforestation occurs, illegal loggers are the biggest obstacle to the implementation of sustainable land-use policies. Additionally, initiatives that companies take to obtain legal wood and timber may also fail6. Efforts to search for legal timber are in vain when there is lack of information, and when there is so much illegally harvested timber and wood on the market.

Brazil is a good example of a country that has worked to reduce deforestation in the past8, although it still has an opportunity to do more.

Action taken by the Brazilian government have led to a 70% decrease in deforestation from 2004 to 20129, targeted specifically at illegal deforestation–for instance, the illegal clearance of private areas of forest. Namely, they increased the area of protected Brazilian Amazon and, at the same time, protected indigenous communities. An increasing amount of deforestation data10 and public support helped trigger these new measures9. However, illegal land-grabbing still is not completely prevented and it contributes to current Amazon deforestation.

To conclude

It is clear then that governments can halt deforestation if they aim to solve illegality problems. Since deforestation leads to loss of biodiversity, reduction of oxygen emissions and soil degradation, illegality can be considered as one of the main drivers of an important environmental degradation5.


1 Forests and Agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. State of the World’s Forests FAO. 2016; 2.

2 Amos O. Australian fires: Why do people start fires during fires? BBC. 2019 Nov 14.

3 Lawson S. Consumer Goods and Deforestation. Forest Trends. 2014 Sept 10; 2.

4 More Than 30 Percent of Wood Used by Indonesia’s Industrial Forestry Sector Comes from Illegal, Unsustainable Sources. Forest Trends. 2015 Feb 17; 2.

5 Lawson S. Consumer Goods and Deforestation. Forest Trends. 2014 Sept 10; 24.

6 Lawson S. Consumer Goods and Deforestation. Forest Trends. 2014 Sept 10; 7.

7 Image: Edward Burtynsky, The Anthropocene Project, https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/projects/photographs/anthropocene

8 Forests and Agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. State of the World’s Forests FAO. 2016; 49.

9 Lawson S. Consumer Goods and Deforestation. Forest Trends. 2014 Sept 10; 31.

10 Forests and Agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. State of the World’s Forests FAO. 2016; 47.