Secretary of State Colin Powell formally launched a new U.S. government initiative Monday aimed at combating the global problem of illegal logging. The U.S. program will focus initially on the Congo and Amazon basins, and tropical forests in Southeast Asia.
The Initiative Against Illegal Logging is starting with only modest funding, about $15 million.
But the Bush administration says it will seek more money from Congress as pilot projects prove their worth. And it is looking for support from conservation and industry groups to help tackle a problem it says costs developing countries $10 to $15 billion a year in lost revenue and environmental degradation.
At a kick-off event at the State Department, Secretary Powell said the initial program will include U.S. law enforcement aid to African, Latin American and Southeast Asian countries to help them enforce their own regulations against illegal logging.
He said it will also involve the transfer of technology including remote-sensing equipment to help countries monitor stands of big-leaf Mahogany and other trees prized by forest thieves.
Mr. Powell said lucrative trade in illegal forest products has weakened fledging democracies in the developing world by fueling corruption, and has also financed regional conflicts, citing the current example of Liberia. "Liberia's Charles Taylor has used revenues from the timber industry, which is now under U.N. sanctions, to buy arms and fuel violence throughout the region. In the process Liberia's logging industry is depleting its hardwood tropical forests on behalf of a corrupt elite, and destroying an important source of the natural wealth the people of Liberia need for their own development, and will need desperately once we are able to put a cease-fire in place, and ECOWAS peacekeepers supported by the United States are able to put a political transformation process in place as well," he said.
The administration initiative drew the endorsement of major conservation groups including the World Wildlife Fund but some environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough.
One activist group, The Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency, faulted the program for not directly addressing the importation to the United States of illegally-cut foreign timber.
The group said much illegal timber is shipped to the United States via Singapore, and it called on the two governments to set up a task force to combat the problem as part of the new free trade accord with Singapore approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.