TORONTO. — Forest protection agencies in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Madagascar will step up joint efforts to combat the rapidly expanding trade in illegal timber under a new deal. The Zanzibar Declaration on Illegal Logging, signed yesterday at a global gathering on forests in South Africa, aims to improve communication between customs authorities and collaboration among forest officials from the east and southeast African nations.

If properly managed, forests provide jobs for workers and homes for wildlife. They also act as a filter pulling planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so protecting them is crucial for the broader environment. Across the region, the illegal timber trade is flourishing at an alarming pace, said Juma S Mgoo, chief executive officer of Tanzania’s Forest Service. Criminal groups are benefiting from the environmental destruction.

“Forests continue to dwindle at unprecedented rates in our region,” Mgoo said in a statement. “If we continue at the rate which we are going there will be nothing left for our children and their children to enjoy.” Kenya loses around $10m annually due to the illegal cross-border wood trade with Tanzania, while Tanzania loses more than $8m, according to studies cited by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a green group backing the new agreement.

Between 2000 and 2012, forest cover in Tanzania shrank by 2 million hectares, an area the size of Wales in Britain and by 2.2 million hectares in Mozambique, a WWF analysis showed.

Prior to yesterday’s agreement, the fight against illegal logging had been “hindered by inadequate collaboration among national forest agencies and customs agencies across the region”, said WWF spokesperson Geofrey Mwanjela in a statement calling the new plan a “bold step”.

In east, central and west Africa, criminal groups are thought to make more money from selling illegal wood products, up to $9 billion annually, than through street-level drug-dealing, the United Nations Environment Programme reported last year. Violent armed groups and “terrorist organisations” in parts of east and central Africa use illegal logging and other forest crimes to finance their activities, Unep said. — Reuters.