The use of these "shadow permits" are undermining efforts to curb corruption in the timber sector and is increasing the likelihood that illegal wood is being exported to Europe and elsewhere, according to the report. The permits were originally intended to help small-scale enterprises but are instead being used to circumvent commercial logging regulations in Ghana, Cameroon, Liberia and Congo.
The European Union Timber Regulation went into effect on March 3, prohibiting the import of illegal timber. But Global Witness said the continued use of shadow permits could render the measure ineffective.
"Unless European and African policymakers take urgent action, shadow permits could become the Trojan horse by which illegal timber is brought into the EU and passed off as legitimate," said Global Witness Europe campaigner Alexandra Pardal.
European-led efforts to reform the timber sector have focused on large-scale logging concessions, but these small-scale permits are not typically subject to the same regulations. Often intended for local communities or artisanal loggers, the permits allow for logging on a smaller territory or for a shorter amount of time than those awarded to commercial logging companies.
Global Witness says that in the four countries covered by the report, political elites, forestry officials and logging companies have colluded to use the small-scale permits for commercial purposes. "The use of shadow permits to evade tighter regulation of other permits is now an escalating trend, which should concern policymakers and environmental campaigners worldwide," the report says.
Last year, Global Witness documented how so-called "Private Use Permits" became the main source of commercial timber in Liberia, enabling logging companies to claim over 40 percent of Liberia's forests in just two years. The permits were intended to allow private land owners to take advantage of their forest resources.
While the portion of land affected was greatest in Liberia, the use of these permits in the three other countries covered in the report "could lead to similar destruction on a grand scale," said Global Witness Team Leader for Forest Sector Transparency David Young.
These permits are often granted in secret, and the response from governments so far has failed to tackle the system's lack of transparency, Young said.
"Governments do respond when you put them on the spot and close down individual contracts," he said. "But the longer term problem about lack of transparency around contract allocation continues. And we see that in pretty much every single country."
In January, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reaffirmed a moratorium on Private Use Permits while vowing to investigate those who had previously abused the system. In March, however, Global Witness found timber logged through the use of these permits in a port in France, and Young said Tuesday there had been little progress on investigations and prosecutions.
In Congo, more than 100 Artisanal Logging Permits were allocated to industrial logging companies in 2010 and 2011, an arrangement the report says violated Congolese law "in up to 10 different ways." Last month, Belgian authorities seized a shipment from Congo of 40 cubic meters of Afrormosia wood valued at nearly 61,000 Euros ($81,500) that arrived in Antwerp after Greenpeace Belgium said it may have been illegally sourced.
Congo's Environment Minister Bavon N'sa Mputu Elima told The Associated Press last week that an investigation had been opened into the situation.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed reporting from Kinshasa, Congo.