Behind-the-scenes: How UBC journalism students uncovered the roots of global illegal logging

By Keith Rozendal

We covered 29,000 kilometres in 11 days to get our story. Why? It’s on our course syllabus.

By Keith Rozendal

We covered 29,000 kilometres in 11 days to get our story. Why? It’s on our course syllabus.

Since 2008, student-faculty teams have departed the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in Vancouver to points all over the globe. We’re part of the International Reporting Program (IRP), a hands-on course designed to produce globe-spanning investigations, while also training new cadres of reporters in the mindset and skills required for global journalism.

Past investigations exposed the dumping of electronic waste in Ghana and anti-drug policies that create painful shortages of morphine in the Ukraine, India and Uganda. Students in the course have also reported from Brazil and Thailand and, soon, China.

Students aren’t required to join one of the overseas reporting trips. But if a student opts to embark on one of the adventures, philanthropic gifts and grant-based funding pays for air and ground travel and lodging. Students buy their own food during the trip and pay all the fees to get immunizations and visas.


The $30 billion illegal logging racket

This year, our class of 10 second-year Master’s students and three faculty members investigated the global trade in illegally cut wood.

Illegal logging makes up 15 to 30 per cent of the global wood trade—50 to 90 per cent in many key tropical countries, according to Interpol. It earns criminal organizations more than $30 billion a year, threatening people’s livelihoods and placing an enormous cumulative toll on ecosystems. Corrupt governments are some of the biggest forest looters, or they look the other way.

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We eventually found illegal logging stories in Cameroon, Indonesia and the far east of Russia, settling on these sites after months of research and reporting on the issue. We left for our reporting trips in December, and we spent the remainder of the academic year in production mode.

The students canvassed our personal and professional networks, scoured tourist and academic books and spoke to people working on international development projects, documentary filmmakers and citizens and officials “on the ground.” We learned to value the crusading research produced by non-governmental organizations, but we also learned to ask critical questions about how those reports are shaped by an NGO’s interests.

We also intensely debated the perils and pitfalls of “parachute journalism.” Our success and safety demanded that we hire trustworthy and talented local translators and “fixers” who understood the unique and unyielding needs of a newsgathering team.

We discarded a plan to send a team of students to Papua New Guinea once we learned that barge operators in the country sometimes paid for illegally harvested logs with guns and drugs. Other health and safety concerns, high costs and visa and permit requirements prevented us from sending teams to Peru, Brazil, Tanzania and the Philippines.

Learning by doing (or failing)

Our mentor in Cameroon was Shayla Harris, a New York Times video journalist. Despite never having worked with students in this way, she proved to be a natural—generous with her experience while still letting us learn-by-doing (or failing) whenever it made sense.

We endured several tense incidents when officials challenged the paperwork backing up our permission to travel and film in Cameroon—a classic shakedown. We also deflected numerous demands for payment from our sources. We convened many intense huddles to sort out the ethics and tactics needed to navigate these murky waters and to get the story right.

Our efforts to safeguard our footage (stashing full data cards close to our bodies, duplicating them immediately—twice—to hard drives we kept widely separated) began to seem less and less paranoid as the days passed.

In the end, the only casualties were several packs of AA batteries confiscated by an imperious airport security officer.



Designing a multimedia interactive experience for our audience

All the IRP teams returned with a similar set of unresolved questions. Can the national and international laws governing forestry be enforced? What, if anything, do consumers know about where their wood products originate?

These questions guided the production phase of our course. We teamed up with local students of the creative digital arts to develop our website concept. We wanted our audience to begin to take note of wood and paper products and then to imagine what stories could be told about each one. We drive this point home with the very structure of our website.

A moabi door blocks a path leading through a numinous rainforest landscape. Users teleport through the door, arriving inside a typical North American apartment, filled with many wood and paper products. Clicking on these items instantly connects the user to our illegal logging stories—gathered from where the wood was cut.

Keith Rozendal’s Master’s project at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism is an interactive online documentary about Canadians with rare diseases and the extraordinarily expensive drug treatments they receive (to be published at He earned a doctorate in social psychology from the University of California-Santa Barbara and is a graduate of UC-Santa Cruz’s Science Communication program.



Photo credits: Home page photo: Lindsay Sample interviews Brigitte Anziom, head of the Cameroonian NGO Astradhe, in Nomedjoh (photo by Keith Rozendal). Top photo: Shayla Harris and Keith Rozendal gather video and audio at the wood port in Douala, Cameroon (photo by Lindsay Sample). Bottom photo: Shayla Harris and Lindsay sample prepare to film, observed by men from Nomdejoh, Cameroon (photo by Keith Rozendal).