7. Investigating Harvesting: Fieldwork

Fieldwork presents a further opportunity to compare what is legally allowed to occur – according to permits and regulations – with what is actually occurring, and who is doing it. While it is an invaluable process, as will be explained, fieldwork presents significant security risks that are not present in previous stages of research.

It is vital to gather and analyse as much permit information as possible before the fieldwork stage, to provide a baseline against which field information can be measured. The systematic steps that should have been taken before fieldwork begins – comparison of permits to regulations, interrogating the contents of permits, and satellite analysis – ensure that it is properly informed and can be planned effectively. For example, if the permit analysis suggests that social obligations have been violated, a priority during fieldwork will be gathering data and narrative testimony from communities to that effect. If satellite analysis indicates clearing beyond concession boundaries, a priority will be visiting the areas identified to gather geo-referenced images of harvesting. In most cases, as in both of these examples, the prior analysis will both help direct fieldwork and help field investigators understand and interpret evidence they come across.

Fieldwork also presents an opportunity to fill in significant gaps in the data where efforts to obtain permits or carry out satellite imagery analysis have proved unsuccessful. While it can be difficult or even impossible to obtain permits from official channels, communities local to logging activities sometimes have them and other relevant documents.

Some types of illegality cannot be identified without fieldwork. It is essential to provide evidence of operational infractions in selective logging concessions, for example, such as harvesting of under-size trees or protected species. In other cases, indicative evidence of illegality found during previous stages of the investigation may be reinforced by field evidence. For example, if satellite analysis shows clearing outside concession boundaries, fieldwork can prove that it is being carried out by the concessionaire, and that timber from the clearance is being laundered into the ‘legitimate’ harvest.

The fieldwork phase is perhaps the first point at which there is a significant risk of ‘information overload’. Whereas assessing permits and regulations is likely to be complicated by a lack of access to the relevant data, fieldwork can create a deluge of images, video, GPS points, testimony, more documents and general observations. As a result, proper planning, preparation and targeting is essential prior to the trip, as is data management during and after it.

Proper planning and preparation is essential prior to fieldwork


A key difference between fieldwork and previous stages of the investigation is that while acquiring permits or analysing maps can be done over weeks or months, fieldwork takes place within a small window of time, often with only one opportunity. This is in part due to the logistics and costs of visiting remote areas, and in part due to the risks it presents. Spending excessively long amounts of time in the vicinity of logging areas presents risks not only to field investigators, but also to communities who may be providing them with evidence or have long-standing disputes with companies. Cultivating and using local informants will be key.

As such, the approach to planning fieldwork must be systematic. As many decisions as possible – on objective, itinerary, logistics and security – should be taken prior to the trip. It is inevitable that decisions will have to be made as new information emerges and sometimes these may lead to a substantial deviation from the plan. But at no point should the process become uncontrolled or ad hoc. Some key steps are to:

  • Identify the types of illegality that require further probing through fieldwork based on previous stages of analysis.
  • Determine what evidence is required to support hypotheses and how it can be obtained.
  • Determine what other information can be sought, that might provide indications of other (as yet unidentified) illegalities.
  • Draft a document outlining all potential leads that can be pursued.
  • Put together an investigation team, ideally including individuals with local knowledge and individuals who can speak languages local to the area of interest.
  • Use maps, satellite images and, where possible, local knowledge to determine the most appropriate itinerary through the area of interest that will exhaust all potential leads.

‘Involving communities in fieldwork can present considerable risks to them’

Ideally, contact should be made with local communities or other contacts prior to the trip. This is best done through a fixer with local affiliations, who can also act as an intermediary in the course of the fieldwork. Fixers can provide knowledge of the landscape, local stakeholders, risks and other logistical issues that can improve planning. If such a fixer cannot be identified, fieldwork should proceed using a stepwise approach, by speaking to communities and other sources in increasing proximity to the area of interest, thereby building up knowledge of local conditions in areas of lower risk.

In the ideal scenario, communities can be relied on extensively for both information and to facilitate access throughout the area. They provide an incomparable source of information on the local context and operation of companies, and are keenly attuned to risk. They are often able to facilitate access into concessions or act as guides in forests. However, involving communities in fieldwork in any way can present considerable risks to them. While field investigators will leave the area of interest, communities will stay and can be subject to reprisals. Indigenous activists have been murdered by individuals protecting logging interests, so the seriousness of this risk must not be underestimated. Any approach to communities must take this into consideration.

It should also be considered that some community members will be in the employ of logging or other companies, and may have a close affiliation to police or local government.

The fieldwork itinerary should identify times at which villages can be accessed, and by what route. Potential entry points into the concession of interest can also be identified. Developing a sense of the time fieldwork will take, leaving sufficient room for contingencies, helps to establish a risk mitigation plan.

Logging companies usually construct and effectively own logging roads. They may have checkpoints and can control access to and from the area of interest. They will, however, often allow local people to use the roads and pass checkpoints, reinforcing the importance of using local fixers. Companies also have connections with – and may even exercise corrupt control over – local police and military. In many cases they have used these state agencies as de facto private forces to intimidate, assault, and arrest local community members and others seeking to investigate or protest against their activities. These factors must be considered when planning both the investigation, and the risk mitigation plan (see Mitigating risks in fieldwork).

Data Gathering

The data gathered during fieldwork will fall broadly into one of three categories:

  • Written evidence
  • Interview evidence (testimony)
  • Geo-referenced visual evidence

Written evidence:

Documents may be available from local communities. As explored above, they may have obtained permits or other data

from companies that investigators have been unable to obtain from other sources. This is most likely to include Environmental Impact Assessments and contracts that include some form of social obligation. It may be necessary to take photographs of documents, as communities will want to retain them. Signs erected by companies may also provide useful information.


Carrying out semi-formal or informal interviews with communities can provide a rich seam of information. This information may provide some evidence of illegality in itself and can definitely help guide further stages of fieldwork. These interviews can, in particular, help tease out a nuanced understanding of some more complex legal violations. For example, violations of the rights of communities to consultation during EIA processes, or companies’ failure to observe legal obligations they have made to communities.

The need to focus on these types of illegality should be defined prior to fieldwork, and the interviews should be guided by a clear understanding of what testimony will support the indicative evidence. In some cases, particularly where the testimony is critical to proving a case, it will be desirable to film or record audio of interviews. Whether this is done or not, a clear agreement should be made between the investigators and specific community members regarding the ways in which the testimony can be used. In many cases it will present significant risk if evidence from communities, that can be attributed to them, is made public. Sound recordings should be checked in the field to ensure the testimony is clearly audible.

Even where there is no clear evidence of illegality in the testimony, it can provide a compelling vision of the harmful impacts of logging on communities, that can be used in denunciations that do not have a legal component.

‘The critical component of fieldwork is the ability to pinpoint what is happening where’

Company employees are another source of narrative information. They should of course be approached with caution. But in some cases, during fieldwork, investigators may find themselves in low-risk conversation with workers. They can provide a great deal of information on company’s activities within the area of harvest, and the destination of the harvested timber (see Case Study 2). In such cases, it may be necessary to record testimony covertly (see Recording Evidence Covertly).

Geo-referenced visual evidence:

The critical component of fieldwork is the ability to pinpoint what is happening where. The ‘what’ is provided by photographic and video evidence. The ‘where’ is provided by Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. GPS devices function by pinpointing the location of the device, using signals from three or more satellites. They display the location in latitude and longitude, and the degree of accuracy. The accuracy depends on a number of factors, but the devices are on average accurate to within 15m.

GPS devices are easy to use with a minimum of training, and combined with a camera can provide irrefutable evidence of what is taking place in a very specific location (see GPS, Photography and Open Data Kit). The key to good data gathering is ensuring that pictures are taken with a GPS device in view. Otherwise the data is essentially separated and can be refuted. Some cameras now have built-in GPS, and smartphones also combine both in one device. This process, of combining images with location, is key to demonstrating operational infractions, such as logging outside concession boundaries, harvesting of protected species, or logging in the wrong zones. This has been used to demonstrable effect in Cameroon, leading to a case under the EU Timber Regulation in the Netherlands (See Case study 4).

During fieldwork, investigators should ensure that photographs are taken of confirmed and potential infractions, but also other information of possible usefulness, such as signposts identifying companies or sub-contractors. Aside from GPS devices, it can also be useful to include a vehicle, person or other object in the shot in order to provide scale, such as in a photograph of a landslide next to a road, or of a stump of below the minimum diameter.

Investigators should bear in mind that use of still and video cameras brings additional attention and therefore risk (see Risk: Mitigating risks in fieldwork).

Next Steps

Timber is transported from logging sites by truck, and commonly consolidated at log collection points within the harvest area before onward transport. From there, timber may be taken by road direct to mill or port, but more commonly is transported to the nearest navigable river and transported onwards by barge or floated down-river in rafts. In some regions, logs are consolidated at railheads and transported by train. While it may occasionally be possible to physically follow trucks in order to determine their destination, usually other methods must be employed to connect logs from point of harvest to point of processing or export. GPS trackers, attached to trucks, barges or individual logs, have been used effectively to trace timber further down the supply chain from the point of harvest (see Case Study 8). It is often also possible to make connections by searching for logs with relevant identifying markings (see Log Markings) in mills nearby, downstream or otherwise considered likely to be using the wood. In many cases however, tracking timber will have to be done using the paper trail (see Section 9).

Post fieldwork

Given the time pressure that investigators are commonly under in the field, and the volume of information that can be available, good data management is essential. When returning from field trips an investigator will typically have hundreds of pictures, dozens of GPS points fixed in the GPS device, pages of notes, and potentially audiovisual records of interviews with communities. Establishing a system for managing this data while in the field, and processing it quickly afterwards, is essential to turn raw data into evidence.

The importance of this process cannot be overstated. In the event that an illegal logging case gets to court, data that is poorly organised and managed may be inadmissible.

Once key evidence (such as digital images) is logged, copied and backed up, analysis can begin. Subsequent to fieldwork any geo-referenced data can be added to existing maps to present a clearer picture of the location of harvesting. This is where Google Earth or specialist GIS software is more useful than Global Forest Watch, in that GPS data can be downloaded and compared with contextual data, particularly concession maps. This enables the identification of operational infractions such as logging outside boundaries. Where pictures evidence this, they should be cross-referenced with GPS data and stored in a format that enables the evidence to be easily accessed.

Greenpeace investigations in Cameroon demonstrate how effective such simple overlays can be (see Case study 4). The same method, integrated with other, more complex techniques, was also employed by Greenpeace to follow up its investigation into illegal logging in Para State, Brazil. In this case, the evidence was supported by GPS trackers planted on logging trucks, a tool that provided an unprecedented insight into the laundering of high-value species (see Case Study 8).

Connecting the dots and next steps

The cycle of gathering permit data, analysing maps and carrying out fieldwork can be carried out more than once, and it may be necessary to do so to complete a set of information that reaches evidentiary thresholds. Where clear or prima facie evidence of illegality has been established, the next step will be to determine where the timber is going from the point of harvest. In some cases, the evidence will remain unclear irrespective of the extent of investigations at the point of harvest. This is particularly the case where the perpetrators are a large number of seemingly unorganised individuals, acting independently, or where timber is being laundered. It may also be the case where levels of transparency make it impossible to get permits and maps, or where security risks or logistical challenges prohibit thorough field investigations.

In all of these instances, moving downstream and identifying the destination of timber – whether through physical observation or tracking, or following the paper trail – presents a new and different opportunity to investigate the illegal timber trade. Timber can be harvested legally but subsequently become illegal, downstream, due to violations of other regulations governing its transport, processing and trade.