The true cost of that tropical hardwood table

Global Witness co-founder Patrick Alley exposes links between ecocide and genocide

It's not a very comfortable or comforting experience, talking with Patrick Alley about the state of our world. Global Witness, the organisation he co-founded in 1995 to investigate links between natural resource extraction, environmental degradation and human rights abuses, has exposed many grim secrets. And they don't only concern the usual suspects.

Its inquiries have also cast a disturbing light on organisations most us would probably regard as cool clean heroes for the planet, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Forest Stewardship Council.

Nor do Alley’s narratives, which on occasion have linked ecocide to genocide, remain comfortably distant in remote corners of world. He always brings each story back to financial and business institutions on our doorsteps. He reminds us that no corrupt dictator or illegal logging company can succeed without a “respectable” bank to channel their loot, a property company to invest it securely in somewhere such as London or Dublin, and government policies that fail to police these institutions.

Ultimately, he traces the story right back to the mundane decisions we take as consumers. He makes the human and environmental costs of that temptingly beautiful tropical hardwood table in our local furniture store very visible indeed.


New model

But if all this makes him sound like gloomy company, that’s a false portrait. He remains a passionate, dynamic and even upbeat campaigner. He believes not only that organisations such as Global Witness can put some bad guys behind bars, pressuring others to change their ways. He also believes a new economic and ecological model can lead us out of the “very fragile place” where we find ourselves today.

`We are at a critical point,' Alley says. `Unlimited growth is not possible in a finite world. We have to change our economic model'

Global Witness has been, so far, much more successful in exposing past and present crimes than in persuading the world to build a more sustainable future. Its impressive record began in the 1990s, influencing the end of the Cambodian civil war, followed by a key role in securing an international ban on “blood diamonds” from Africa.

When Alley talked to The Irish Times late last month, a Dutch timber magnate, Guus Kouwenhoven, had just been found guilty of delivering weapons to the notorious Liberian dictator and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor.   In exchange, Taylor had given favourable treatment to Kouwenhoven's Oriental Timber Corporation. Taylor's wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which cost 250,000 lives, were funded largely through timber and diamonds exports.

Kouwenhoven’s 19-year jail sentence vindicates 18 years’ investigation by Global Witness. Alley gives full credit to the Dutch authorities for pursuing this case to a successful conclusion. This is the exception rather than the rule in international environmental justice, but he thinks that is changing.

“This verdict sends a clear message to those who profit from war,” says Alley.  “They can and will be held to account.”

This isn't the end of bringing this particularly bloody story back home to Europe: Global Witness claims that many European timber companies bought timber from Kouwenhoven "in full knowledge of his close links with the brutal dictator". It now demands that prosecutions for aiding and abetting war crimes should now be brought against them as well.

Global Witness is a big player today, funded by many foundations and individuals, with an annual budget of €10 million, and 100 full-time employees. But its beginnings two decades ago were humble, when Alley and his two co-founders, Charmian Gooch and Simon Taylor,  who all had experience  investigating environmental crime,  first developed their unconventional modus operandi.

Khmer Rouge

It started with a discussion of the civil war in Cambodia, relaunched by the genocidal Khmer Rouge despite unprecedented United Nations intervention in a complex peace process. Alley and his colleagues had heard that the Khmer Rouge were funding their attacks through profits from  massive illegal timber exports across the Thai border from their forest strongholds.

It struck the trio that, if they could prove these reports true, Thailand would have to close the border, the Khmer Rouge would run out of money and then guns, the war would end and some of the forests would be saved.

“I know it sounds very naive,” says Alley, “but it worked.”

It worked, however, only because he and Taylor took the risk of repeatedly working undercover on the Thai side of the frontier, posing as timber buyers. They  managed to film evidence that Thai business, military and government interests were indeed facilitating this illegal and lethal trade. He talks about it lightly now, but it must have been hair-raising at the time.

“It helps not to know all the risks you are taking,” he says, “but we weren’t reckless.”

The success of their first campaign was qualified by what happened afterwards. The war indeed ended, but illegal logging continued, now masterminded by corrupt Cambodian state officials. The country is still losing its forest cover faster than almost anywhere else today, and thousands of people are still losing their homes and livelihoods as a result.

The lesson that Global Witness learned, and that has informed its evolution ever since, is that there is an intimate nexus between armed conflict, human rights abuses and environmental degradation in the developing world. Corruption, with tentacles reaching into financial districts across the world, links all three problems. None of them can be dealt with in isolation.

“We are at a critical point,” Alley says. “Unlimited growth is not possible in a finite world. We have to change our economic model. Yes, business needs to make profits, but it also needs to build environmental and social sustainability into a ‘triple bottom line’ if business itself is to survive.”

Despite Trump and Brexit, he remains optimistic that more and more individuals and companies are recognising these principles, and that the world will turn a corner soon. Sometimes, perhaps, you need to be on the front line to see a way forward.

Time to stop all industrial logging in the tropics?

Patrick Alley argues, from considerable experience, that the industrial logging of tropical forests is almost always corrupt, often intimately linked to human rights abuses and armed conflicts, and, in the case of primary forests, always environmentally indefensible.

This is where Global Witness has clashed with major organisations that are usually seen as guardians of threatened ecosystems. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies “sustainable” tropical timber. Alley says there is no such thing, because our remaining tropical forests are much too valuable as planetary “lungs” and as greenhouse gas “sinks”, too precious for biodiversity and the livelihoods of the millions of humans who still live in them, to justify their industrial exploitation.

The World Bank often argues that logging can lead forest communities out of poverty. Global Witness experts say they have never seen this happen. "Tropical forests are full of people," says Alley. "With industrial logging they lose their food, their fuel, their homes, their spiritual support systems. Nowhere in the tropics has industrial logging brought anything but destruction."

He stresses that locally controlled, small-scale timber extraction can bring many benefits and be truly sustainable, but claims that the economic model for industrial loggiing is “fundamentally flawed”.

The World Wildlife Fund established the Global Forest and Trade Network in the hope of saving forests by helping industrial logging companies produce “credibly certified” timber products. But a 2011 Global Network investigation claims that some companies in the network, which benefit by association with WWF’s very positive brand, were falling far short of the standards set by the network.

These are serious charges, and to make up your own mind you need to read both the report ( and the WWF response (

Alley says Global Witness doesn’t question the bona fides of either the Forest Stewardship Council or the World Wildlife Fund. He simply says their model is not working, and that if they do not recognise that very soon, the world’s forest resources, and all that depends on them, will approach collapse.