Thousands of logs are moved around South-east Asia annually, much of the activity illegal. Some of the trees are felled in Laos and Cambodia, with the timber shipped across the border to Vietnam, where they are turned into furniture and then sold to neighbouring China.
Enforcement officials already have a hard enough time keeping track of such timber and related products, which were estimated to be worth US$11 billion in 2010.
Experts warn that it will soon get harder when Customs procedures are streamlined across ASEAN countries under economic integration plans, to begin in a year's time.
In fact, a whole host of illicit trades could get a shot in the arm when trade barriers are lowered if nothing is done to beef up security soon, said experts at a conference organised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok last Friday. These include trade in narcotics, trafficked persons, electronic waste and endangered wildlife.
"It's not just a win-win situation," said Mr Giovanni Broussard, a UNODC officer in charge of wildlife and forest crime, in reference to the boost the ASEAN Economic Community will give to trade. "There is a dark side to this growth. And this dark side must be taken into consideration when constructing infrastructure."
Timber, for example, needs to be trucked or shipped and tends to go through border checkpoints with good infrastructure, especially those near forests or ports.
"The risk of putting too much pressure on having very fast movement of cargoes through the border is that there will be very lax enforcement of existing regulations," Mr Broussard told The Sunday Times.
Transnational organised crime in South-east Asia is estimated to be worth almost US$100 billion (S$127 billion) a year.
More than US$30 billion is trade in heroin and methamphetamine, while environment-related crimes like illegal timber felling and the electronic waste trade make up about US$24 billion.
The risks could be lowered if each country was more proactive in flagging criminals with transnational networks to security officers in neighbouring countries. At the moment, such sharing of information is inadequate, said officials interviewed.
Said Mr Sophana Meach, undersecretary of state for international cooperation and ASEAN affairs at the Cambodian Interior Ministry: "We need broader cooperation for information sharing, and it has to be committed at a political level."
Each country needs to clear the legal hurdles for security officers to share relevant information with their counterparts in neighbouring countries, he said.
On a more basic level, enforcement officers, who are overstretched in many parts of South-east Asia, need more training and resources.
In one instance, said Ms Margaret Akullo, UNODC's programme coordinator for child sex offences, an individual who called the police to tip them off about a trafficking case was told that the police did not have a means of transport to get to the crime scene. Police asked the informant to provide transport.
Look at all aspects
"It's not just a win-win situation. There is a dark side to this growth. And this dark side must be taken into consideration when constructing infrastructure." -MR GIOVANNI BROUSSARD, a UNODC officer in charge of wildlife and forest crime
This article was first published on Nov 02, 2014.
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