The last trees of the Amazon

  • Illegally-sourced timber from Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia are incorporated into the international market with falsified official documents that are almost never verified.
  • Timber traffickers are now pursuing new species of trees, but the countries’ governments do very little to protect the species.

Alarmed by the entry of poachers who illegally cut down and stole the oldest trees from their territory, members of the Shawi indigenous community organized an assembly this past August to decide how to take action against the loggers.

The trees were taken out on the only road that connects the Shawi community, in the northwestern Peruvian Amazon, to Balsa Puerto, the nearest district. After the road was destroyed by the heavy trucks that the loggers used to carry the cut sections of the trees, the Shawi created a roadblock and checkpoint to stop them.

They accomplished what the Peruvian government has been unable to: control timber trafficking routes. But it led to a series of violent threats against the leaders of the Shawi community.

It wasn’t the first time traffickers had threatened indigenous leaders. In September 2014, one of those threats was carried through to its grim conclusion: A group of illegal loggers murdered Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quinticima, Jorge Ríos and Francisco Pinedo, all members of the Saweto indigenous community in Ucayali, a region of Peru close to the Brazilian border.

Chota, the community’s president, spoke out against timber trafficking for 12 years before his murder, but authorities have yet to begin a serious investigation. Nobody has been sentenced for the murders, and law enforcement hasn’t improved safety measures for other leaders being threatened, or reduced logging in prohibited areas. The trees cut down from these forests continue to feed into the sophisticated, multimillion-dollar timber trafficking industry in Peru.

Globally, illegal timber trafficking is an industry worth more than $50 billion, according to the UN Environment Programme, and represents up to 30 percent of the timber sold around the world. #MaderaSucia (“dirty timber”) is an investigation aimed at analyzing the current situation of the Amazonian timber market and discovering the ways in which the traffickers launder their illegally obtained products into the global trade chain. The investigation was led by OjoPúblico and Mongabay Latam in partnership with a team of reporters from Colombia (Semana, El Espectador), Bolivia (El Deber), Mexico (Connectas) and Brazil (InfoAmazonia).

False documents in the Amazon

The system that permits illegally sourced timber to be sold and exported legitimately is prevalent in all of the Amazonian countries covered in the investigation. The official documents, which don’t always take into account the verification processes used by officials in each country, allow the indiscriminate looting of forest resources from the Amazon. The United States and China are the most frequent destinations of the illegally-sourced timber.

In the reported cases and interviews conducted for this investigative piece, authorities confirmed that timber traffickers often provided false information on official documents. In the majority of cases, the timber of illegal origin is sold with papers that falsely declare that the trees came from an authorized zone, when in reality they were taken from forests where logging is prohibited, such as natural protected areas or indigenous lands.

This falsification of documents occurs most frequently in Peru, which exports more timber than any country, barring Brazil. In recent years, Peru’s Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources and Wildlife (OSINFOR) has uncovered regional officials approving forest plans that claim to have scientifically impossible numbers of trees in certain areas. Others claim to have trees on riverbeds or on incorrect coordinates.

Bolivian authorities have discovered a similar phenomenon: there, timber traffickers alter Forest Origin Certificates (CFOs) to include illegally sourced timber that they later sell.

A similar situation takes place in Colombia, though to a lesser extent. Colombian news publications Semana and El Espectador report that up to 47 percent of the timber sold in the country is illegal, based on data from the Ministry of the Environment. They estimate the timber trafficking industry there may involve about $750 million per year, almost a third of the money involved in the country’s more notorious and high-profile drug trafficking industry.

A study by Greenpeace reported that illegal loggers in Brazil also falsify information on the papers that certify the origin of ipê, a group of valuable timber trees from the Handroanthus genus. Some loggers there use a similar tactic: they declare the timber on their inventories, but their “origins” don’t match up with true locations. According to Greenpeace, the United States imports more ipê wood with falsified documents than any other country.

In Peru alone, between October 2017 and August 2018, OSINFOR identified the illegal extraction of 25,455 cubic meters (898,950 cubic feet) of timber, or the equivalent of about 5,000 truckloads, valued at more than $30 million.

Some of the timber taken from the Peruvian Amazon in the last few years was exported to Mexico, and then later to the United States. A report Connectas identified 10 companies that bought illegally sourced timber, after one of the most successful operations against the timber trafficking industry. The operation by the Peruvian police and district attorney’s office revealed that 81 percent of the timber that was sold had been taken from areas where logging is prohibited.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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