Colombia’s government announced a “crusade” against illegal logging, vowing to clamp down on the multi-million dollar timber trafficking industry which, it says, funds organized criminal groups.

President Juan Manuel Santos announced the new drive to fight the logging trade on Wednesday, after signing a pact to uphold legal timber standards. Days previously he had declared that timber trafficking would be a “high value target” for his government, putting it in the same category as guerrilla leaders, drug lords and corruption. Santos added that, just as his government had launched a crusade against unlicensed mining, it would combat illegal logging, which he said was equally harmful to the country. As well as the environmental damage caused by the practice, the president based this claim on the assertion that logging is a source of funding for “mafia” groups.

While illegal mining has clear ties to organized criminal groups in Colombia, it is unclear how far this is the case for the timber trafficking industry. Analysts often divide illegal logging into two categories; local people using the woods for subsistence, and organized groups exploiting them for profit. It seems likely that many unlicensed loggers in Colombia are simply members of local communities, who may have been cutting trees in the area for generations. This was the view taken by the previous government. In 2009 the then-environment minister said that there were no “big mafias” involved in the trade, and that illegal loggers were mostly local people, doing it to survive or to sell on a small scale.

However, in some seizures of illegal wood cargoes reported by the security forces, the suspects are carrying false permits, or transporting wood in relatively large quantities, which suggests a more organized operation. A recent El Tiempo report on Los Katios national park, in northwest Colombia, states that “international mafias” control much of the logging there. Much of the wood illegally cut in the park is reportedly shipped to China and other Asian countries. This would necessitate a sophisticated operation, with links to international networks.

The potential profit margins may also attract Colombia’s criminal organizations to the industry. While timber trafficking does not bring the same rewards as the drug trade — it is worth $60 million a year, according to figures quoted by El Tiempo, relative to the multi-billion drug industry — the money involved is still significant. Jose Miguel Orozco, a representative of Gobernanza Forestal, a sustainable forestry project backed by the EU, has estimated that proceeds from the illegal timber trade in Colombia come to as much as $200 million a year. He also suggested there was “mafiosa behavior” in some areas of unlicensed logging. Worldwide, the illegal timber industry is worth $7 billion, according to the Center for International Policy.

The government’s proposed crusade against illegal logging comes alongside a nearly year-long effort to crack down on unlicensed mining. Criminal groups are known to be deeply involved in this industry, which, like logging, tends to take place in areas where the government has little presence. One of the biggest hubs of illegal mining is northern Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region, where the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) charges miners millions of pesos worth of extortion payments. As InSight Crime has documented, neo-paramilitary drug gangs like the Rastrojos, the Urabeños, the Paisas and the Oficina de Envigado are also seeking to grab a share of these profits.

Similarly to mining, the timber trafficking industry is large enough that it seems unlikely that Colombia’s armed groups are not involved to some degree. One area where illegal logging is particularly predominant is Antioquia’s Uraba region, a hub of the paramilitary movement which arose in the 1980s. The World Bank estimated that between 2000 to 2004, some 42 percent of Colombia’s wood production was illegally felled. The majority of this was from natural forests, including protected areas like the national parks of El Cocuy, Paramillo and Los Katios. However, the 42 percent figure may actually represent an improvement — older figures from the government suggested that as much as 80 percent of the wood sold in Colombia was illegally sourced. This is more in line with Colombia’s regional neighbors — the World Bank estimated in the same period that some 80 percent of wood sold in Bolivia was illegal, and 70 percent in Ecuador.

Organized criminal groups are known to be involved in illegal logging elsewhere in the region. In May, residents in Cheran, Michoacan, barricaded the town in protest against against illegal loggers, allegedly acting under orders of the Familia Michoacana. In Peru, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla group are also reported to be involved in wood trafficking, using this as a source of finance to fund their war against the state.

If Colombia’s organized criminal groups are involved in the timber trade, then it falls into the category of “eco-trafficking” — the illegal trafficking of products such as wildlife and endangered plants. With some signs that the Colombian government is making progress against the drug trade, it’s possible that the country’s armed groups could seek to diversify their criminal portfolio and solidify an interest in other plants — besides the usual trio of marijuana, poppy and coca.

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