EXCLUSIVE REPORT. A team of journalists from five countries in Latin America led by Ojo-Publico.com and Mongabay Latam investigated the mechanism used by global traffickers to log and launder timber from the Amazon. Illegally sourced planks from Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia reach the international market with official documents that are almost never checked. Governments are doing nothing to protect new forest species being sold by these mafias.
By: Nelly Luna Amancio
“f we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump.”
Hope Jahren. Lab Girl: “A story of trees, science and love.”.
In August of this year, alerted by the entry of strangers who were illegally extracting the oldest trees from their land, members of the Shawi indigenous community in the northeastern part of the Peruvian Amazon called an assembly. They needed to decide what action to take against the group of loggers who were using enormous trucks to transport trees along the only route connecting the community with Balsapuerto, the nearest district. The heavy cargo and the huge tires were destroying the road. The Shawi decided to install a checkpoint to stop this transit. In managing to control the road, they achieved something the Peruvian state had been unable to do for quite some time. But a violent series of threats against the community’s leaders would subsequently ensue.
These were not the first instances in which traffickers had threatened indigenous leaders. Indeed, in September 2014 they had even delivered on one such threat. A group of illegal loggers murdered Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quinticima, Jorge Ríos, and Francisco Pinedo, all members of the Saweto community located in Ucayali near the border with Brazil. Chota was the president of the community and for more than twelve years, he had been reporting timber trafficking in the area without authorities ever initiating a serious investigation. Four years after the murders, the Peruvian justice system is yet to sentence the killers, improve the security of other leaders facing threats, or reduce the extraction of trees in prohibited forests that go on to be trafficked as part of this sophisticated and billion-dollar global business.
The United Nations Environment Program estimates that the value of this illicit business exceeds 50 billion dollars, which represents almost 30% of all timber sold in the world. #DirtyTimber, an investigation led by Ojo-Público and Mongabay Latam in association with a team of reporters and media from Colombia (Semana, El Espectador), Bolivia (El Deber), México (Connectas) and Brazil (Infoamazonía), analyzes the current state of the Amazonian timber market and the mechanisms used by the mafias to clear the illegally sourced products so that these can enter global supply chain.
The system that allows the "legalization" of the timber extracted from forbidden forests to be later traded and exported is the same in all Amazon countries. Official documents, unverified in the field by authorities, have for several years allowed the plundering of Amazon forest resources to go unpunished.
All reported cases show—and authorities interviewed for this investigative series all confirm—the most common method used by the logging mafias to sell illegally sourced timber: false statements made in official documents that claim the trees come from an area authorized for logging when in fact they have been extracted from protected natural areas or indigenous lands.
The most frequent examples are found in Peru, a country second only to Brazil in exporting this timber to the world. In recent years, the Supervisory Agency for Forest and Wildlife Resources (OSINFOR) has identified forest plans approved by regional governments that claim scientifically impossible numbers of particular species, or that claim the presence of trees located in the river beds or with incorrect coordinates.
Bolivian authorities face a similar situation. Timber traffickers alter the Forestry Origin Certificate (CFO) to incorporate and trade illegal cargo.
This story is repeated, if on a smaller scale, in Colombia. As reported by Semana and El Espectador, the Ministry of the Environment estimates that 47% of the timber sold in that country is illegal. The investigation reveals that illegal timber business can generate 750 million dollars a year, which equates to roughly one-third of the amount generated by drug trafficking.
"In Colombia, the illegal wood business represents US $ 750 million a year, almost a third of what moves the drug trade"
A Greenpeace investigation in Brazil shows the same system of inventing information for the paperwork in order to certify the origin of the prized Ipe timber. The loggers declare the timber on their inventories even though the trees do not actually exist in the field. According to Greenpeace, the United States is the greatest recipient of Ipe-type timber that is transported using official documents that show evidence of "inflation" or that contain false declarations about the real origin of the logged trees.
In Peru alone, OSINFOR identified the illegal extraction of 274,000 cubic meters of timber valued at more than 30 million dollars, equivalent to 5,000 loaded trucks between October 2017 and August 2018.
Some of the timber extracted from the Peruvian Amazon over the last years was exported to Mexico, and then on to the US. A report prepared by Connectas identified the 10 companies that bought the most illegally sourced timber. Thanks to one of the more successful operations against trafficking driven by INTERPOL and the Peruvian prosecutor's office, the analysis of the documentation revealed that 81% of the total traded timber had been extracted from prohibited areas.
TERRITORY. Since the beginning of the year, OSINFOR has identified about 4 thousand cubic meters of illegally sourced shihuahuaco from the Amazon.
Photo: Leslie Moreno.
All roads lead to Peru. Investigators point out that timber extracted from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador is sent to the Peruvian Amazon, where it is laundered and traded. The number of people prosecuted for crimes related to illegal logging is an indicator of the extent the trafficking. An Ojo-Público database created as part of this investigation shows that between 2009 and 2017 the environmental prosecutor’s offices and courts throughout the country investigated almost 8000 people in cases related to illegal trafficking and logging.
Due to the existence of controls and protection of species of high commercial value such as mahogany and cedar, the market has begun to put pressure on other tree species; for example, the rush to extract and export shihuahuaco has increased over the last few years. A team of researchers who analyzed the density of these trees has claimed that if the commercial pressure to log continues, the species may enter its final days.
The only way to more effectively control exported timber species would be for the logging companies to provide the correct name of the species on all the documentation. This fails to occur because the customs authorities do not demand it. As a consequence, whilst most of companies declare the quantity they export, they do not name the species. The few companies that do name the timber type use only the local name. This does not help identify the range of species being exported.
It is 12 years since Peru’s list of endangered species was updated. The power of the timber lobby became evident when it halted a scientific study recommending that shihuahuaco be included on the list of threatened species.
Forty-seven per cent of the timber sold in Colombia is illegal.
Photo: El Espectador
The ongoing increase in deforestation is the context for illegal logging in the Amazon. No efforts seem able to stop the destruction of forests at the hands of ranchers, illegal miners, monocultures, and other forms of agriculture. In Colombia, some seventy percent of the deforestation is concentrated in the Amazon. In several places, it is the result of the activities of armed groups, such as “paras” (paramilitary groups), FARC dissidents, and the drug-traffickers operating along corridors leading to the Pacific Ocean. It has increased 44% since the FARC disbanded. The forests in the Quibdó area are the most affected. In Peru illegal mining is devastating the ecosystem of jungle regions such as Madre de Dios.
In a short February 2018 article published in the journal Science Advances (and quoted by El Espectador), the scientist Thomas E. Lovejoy claimed that the Amazon rainforest may be reaching the point of no return. He calculates show that over the last 50 years, the entire Amazon region—shared by nine countries—has lost 17% of its vegetation. He warns that if this figure reaches 20%, one of the last, and most important, green lungs of earth will no longer be sustainable.
Osinfor from Peru identified the illegal extraction of timber valued at more than US $ 30 million, equivalent to the load of five thousand trucks"
Colombian authorities have acknowledged that they will be unable to fulfill their commitment to zero deforestation by 2020. Data from the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) indicates that the loss of natural forest loss in Colombia will grow by 200% to 2020. Peru, also committed to zero deforestation, has issued no pronouncements.
Other than occasional interventions in which INTERPOL and the governments of Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador participate, there is no joint action against timber trafficking amongst the countries that share the Amazon. There is no comprehensive and joint plan to confront the global trade of Amazon timber and to stop the plunder of certain species.
The Waorani communities live in the Yasuni National Park. They say that the illegal loggers are settlers and that Peru is the destination for the planks.
Photo: Edú León
According to a report published in Vistazo magazine, Ecuador last year declared a 10-year ban on mahogany or ahuano (Swietenia macrophylla). Peru and Bolivia have not followed suit. Criminal penalties also differ. Whilst timber trafficking is a crime punishable by jail in Peru, in Bolivia and Colombia it is classified as an administrative infringement.
A similar situation is found in customs controls. Timber export papers are not standardized. Each exporter is free to choose the name of the timber they export and each often uses local denominations rather than the name of the species. This complicates efforts to track global volumes by tree type.
With the publication of the transnational investigation #DirtyTimber, we begin a series of reports that seek to reveal not just the system that allows the unpunished plundering of our Amazon trees, but also the unstoppable increase in international demand which is satisfied at the expense of the environment and often leads to mafia violence.
Hope Jahren, a prominent biologist scientist, explains the consequences of the unstoppable human greed for resources in her book Lab Girl: A story of trees, science and love: “Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine and wood. In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not. If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump.”
Nelly Luna Amancio
Leslie Moreno (OjoPúblico), Vanessa Romo (Mongabay Latam), Miriam Jemio (Mongabay Latam/OjoPúblico), Jaime Florez (Semana), Sergio Silva and Helena Calle (El Espectador), Elizabeth Ortiz Tapia and Priscilla Hernández (Connectas) and María Belen Arroyo (Revista Vistazo).