Column: How myths are made

Rupert Oliver
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Rupert Oliver

Rupert Oliver Rupert Oliver is an internationally recognised independent authority with 20 years experience on environmental issues related to the timber trade and forest management. He is a strong believer in the contribution that forestry and timber can make to sustainable development. He is Director of Forest Industries Intelligence Limited and Consultant to AHEC for Sustainability Issues.
A poorly drafted CNN news article drawing on weak research by the World Bank demonstrates how misinformation about illegal logging is being created.

The CNN news article begins with the statement "A new World Bank study on illegal logging reports that a football field of forest is clear-cut every two seconds around the globe and the problem is now a global epidemic. The study estimates that illegal logging accounts for as much as 90% of all timber felled each year, generating between $10 to $15 billion".

So one of the world's largest and most respected news agencies is quoting an official UN body to the effect that the vast majority of the world's timber is illegally sourced. Who could argue with that?

But scratch beneath the surface, and these claims are shown to be completely spurious. The 90% claim appears to draw on outdated numbers for levels of illegal logging in only 4 tropical countries - Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines - but the CNN article is so badly written that it gives the impression that it is a worldwide figure.

The "football field" claim is a direct quote by CNN from the World Bank study which is referenced, in turn, to a draft Chatham House report of 2009. Close inspection of this Chatham House report reveals no mention of football fields, only an oblique reference to FAO data for global levels of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2005 amounting to around 13 million hectares a year (which if you do the maths, does indeed work out at roughly two football fields every second). However, the World Bank fails to mention that tropical deforestation is the result of a complex range of factors of which poor forest law enforcement is only one (other notable drivers being population growth and land scarcity and conversion for commercial cash crops).

Nor does the World Bank mention that the vast majority of the world's commercial wood supply derives from countries outside the tropical zone where illegal logging is rare and forests are expanding.

The problem, of course, is that few people take the time to ask these questions. The CNN report is copied verbatum around the web, reinforcing public prejudices about the prevalence of poor pratices in the international forestry sector. No doubt the next series of reports on global levels of illegal logging will repeat these misleading claims and be referenced to the World Bank. And so it goes on.
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