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Your Furniture’s Link to a Murderous Logging Epidemic

Once just a climate threat, illegal deforestation is becoming a human rights crisis.
Feb 6, 2015· 11 MIN READ
Alexander Zaitchik has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Salon, The Nation, and The New Republic. He lives in New Orleans.

PUCALLPA, Peru—One afternoon last September, Edwin Chota and three colleagues were walking the dirt track that connects the villages of their Asháninka tribe along the Peru-Brazil border. They were on an organizing mission. Illegal loggers were destroying the forests around Chota’s village of Saweto, and the government was doing little to stop it. So the men went to meet with their fellow tribesmen across the border to strategize about what might be done. They never returned.

The four anti-logging activists were shot and killed, their bodies dumped in the jungle. Their widows traveled for three days by boat to report the murder to authorities here, the nearest city, which has recently grown into a timber boomtown.

For years, Chota had faced down death threats for loudly demanding the government stop illegal logging in the forest where the tribe, like others throughout the region, has lived sustainably for centuries. Those threats had grown more specific with time, and came from powerful people. Before his death, Chota testified to police that a local timber boss warned him, “someone from Saweto is going to die.” The widows promised to continue their husbands’ work, leading to yet more pointed warnings, and eventually to the government’s stationing of police near Chota’s village—a rare state security presence in the remote jungles where, as Chota told National Geographic, “The only law is the law of the gun.”

And, he might have added, the chain saw. The murder of the four Asháninka activists spotlighted a disturbing trend of increased logging, oil drilling, and gold mining in sections of the Amazon that have only recently become accessible to outsiders. In late November, together with a small group of journalists on a reporting grant, I planned to follow the trail of illegal timber backward, from this port city’s processing plants to the lawless jungle near the Brazil border. Two members of Chota's tribe were to guide us on the day’s overland journey east, into the region where illegal logging is rampant. The plan was disrupted when, on the eve of our departure, the Asháninka guides arrived in Pucallpa and told us they would not take us. There had been threats against our party, they said, and they could not protect us. The trip was canceled.

Rising demand for tropical hardwoods, especially from China, drives much of the logging and the attendant violence. Prices for tropical hardwoods have doubled in the last 10 years. Wood from a single old growth mahogany tree now brings more than $11,000 on the global market, about double the yearly income of the average Peruvian.

Much of this wood is illegally harvested and traded. The Environmental Investigation Agency, an international NGO, found in 2012 that over a two-year period, more than a third of all Peruvian wood exports to the U.S. came from trees cut down against the law. This means that for anyone who has bought wood or wood products from Peru in that period, there was a one-in-three chance that their purchase enabled the destruction of Amazonian rainforest and violence against the indigenous people who have been left on their own to protect it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. National laws, international agreements, and NGO-led forest-certification programs, most started in the 1990s in response to public outcry over massive deforestation, were intended to draw a line around large sections of old-growth rainforest and assure consumers that their new coffee table came from sustainably managed forests outside these protected zones. But corruption has stayed several paces ahead of these efforts. The grisly evidence includes the corpses of activists piling up in primary forests from Asia to South America—more than 900 between 2002 and 2013.

This map shows change in forest cover in a region of Peru between 2001 and 2013. The pink represents tree cover loss; the blue represents tree cover gain. (Scale: 1 in = 5 km)

(Illustration: Global Forrest Watch)


In the years leading up to his murder, Chota tried to sound the alarm about the global stakes of forest degradation. He knew firsthand that chopping down high-value trees near his village damaged the larger ecosystem, much like organ damage in humans can lead to system failure. Though not as visually dramatic, illegal “selective logging” belongs to the same spectrum as the clear-cutting deforestation that peaked in 1995, the year Brazil bulldozed an area of rainforest the size of Belgium. In countries like Peru, the second-largest Amazonian country, the practice is often the first step in a slow-motion degradation that’s difficult to detect by satellite. Felling the jungle’s tallest towers of cedar and mahogany weakens watersheds, disrupts local weather patterns, and makes rainforest less resilient in adapting to climate change. It also releases big pockets of stored carbon.

After decades of clear-cutting, this may soon be unaffordable: the more carbon released as a result of degradation, and the weaker the rainforest becomes, the greater the chance it will kick off a terrifying feedback loop known as “dieback” and collapse the entire Amazon ecosystem. In October, Brazil’s space agency analyzed 200 studies on the Amazon’s ability to regulate weather and precipitation, concluding that the forest’s “equilibrium is teetering on the brink of the abyss.” Recent satellite data also indicate that the long-term decline in Brazil’s forest loss may prove temporary. The country’s rate of deforestation spiked last year by more than 25 percent.

Degradation can have dramatic effects for traditional communities like Chota’s. By introducing small roads and infrastructure—at first only tiny cuts—illegal logging opens the door to large-scale agriculture and extractive industry. It also brings vulnerable indigenous groups like the Asháninka into conflict with some dangerous and politically protected enemies. Around Pucallpa, there are indications that some logging companies share interests and trade routes with criminal syndicates. Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world’s leading cocaine producer, and a powerful former politician in the region, timber baron Luis Valdez Villacorta, has been charged with drug dealing, money laundering, and the murder of a journalist who was raising questions about his enterprises.

The crisis has become serious enough to trigger action on multiple fronts. Major players at both ends of the tropical hardwoods business are beginning to confront the corruption that has overtaken the industry. These enforcement efforts, however belated, are beginning to show results, and promise more to come.

Watch the short documentary film about Edwin Chota, Our Fight, by Paul Redman.

The last two decades have seen widespread adoption of “forest certification” labels that are to wood what “fair trade” logos are to coffee and chocolate. When a coalition of timber companies and big green groups launched the Forest Stewardship Council in 1993, Amazonian rainforest was disappearing at a rate that would have wiped it out by the middle of this century. The council was heralded as a pioneering attempt to reduce the timber industry’s contribution to the global deforestation crisis.

A market-based strategy, certification was designed to limit abuses in the wood industry, and their fallout, by providing a profit incentive to stick to better standards. By buying certified, conscientious consumers could opt out of the dirty side of the timber market. The rigor behind these labels varies, from FSC, considered the gold standard since its launch in 1993, to less respected industry efforts like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, begun by the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group. But there is growing evidence that the good intentions behind the idea have been undermined by state-level corruption. Even the best certification programs, according to studies, lack the resources to ensure “clean” wood is kept separate from the not-so-clean.

Two recent investigations into the tropical hardwood trade reveal the elaborate shell games industry uses to mask the origins of its wood. The Laundering Machine, by the Peru office of the Environmental Investigation Agency, details how that country’s logging companies make dirty timber appear clean with a mix of forgery, bribes, and magical thinking. According to the report, companies with logging permits for a particular area submit to authorities a list of trees they plan to chop down in an area where logging is allowed—trees that don’t exist. The official then rubber-stamps the request, and the documents later accompany illegally harvested trees all the way through to export. The only way, the report says, to “detect this illegality” would be “returning to the original concession to verify whether logging” of the fake trees “was actually done.” The EIA estimates around half of the shipments sent to port by Peru’s biggest exporter contained illegal wood.

One of the authors of the EIA report, Julia Urrunaga, says Brazilian companies play the same game. Greenpeace Brazil reported in May that illegal timber, including nearly 80 percent of all wood harvested in one region of rainforest, is being laundered in that country on a “massive and growing scale.”

“The people who killed our husbands were illegal loggers, Brazilians, who operate in that region,” Ergilia Rengifo López, the widow of one of the murdered men, told Democracy Now a few days after I left Peru. “The government does nothing to stop the situation. We depend on our forests for the resources, so we protect the forests. Our four leaders [who] were killed…they fought for the conservation of their lands.”

[Sustainability] certification cannot guarantee that the timber has been harvested from the area stated in the documents.

Julia Urrunaga, director, Peru programs, Environmental Investigation Agency

Given the ease with which corrupt officials operate, and the difficulty of tracing wood to its place of origin, it’s clear that the document-based control systems on which certification programs rely are no match against what the EIA calls “a systematic flow of illegal timber.”

“Even certification by the Forest Stewardship Council cannot guarantee that the timber being traded has been actually harvested from the area stated in the documents accompanying the timber,” said Urrunaga, director of the EIA’s Peru office. “From what we have seen, the FSC system does not have the capacity to identify the loopholes [in the system] or guarantee that timber traded [under the FSC seal] was really harvested from the authorized area.”

When asked about the EIA and Greenpeace reports, FSC’s president, Corey Brinkema, defended the value of certification, including in countries where corruption complicates or undermines credible verification. “FSC requires important social and environmental protections,” he said. “For example, in the Congo Basin, the Center for International Forestry Research found better working and living conditions for forest workers and their families in FSC certified forests. The World Wildlife Fund has documented the critical role that FSC certification plays in protecting primates in these same forests. While there is no silver bullet to perfectly establish legality…FSC offers as much assurance as any certification in the world.”

Even if certification systems could stop illegal logging, some say the labels provide little environmental benefit while supporting an unsustainable industry. FSC and copycat certification emblems now adorn products made from wood harvested in vast, industrially managed tracts of virgin tropical and boreal forests.

“Certification ended up as a best-practices approach to ‘heavy selective logging,’ which usually means selecting all of the big trees and logging them,” said Glen Barry, the founder of the online activist network EcoInternet, which has waged a two-decade campaign against FSC and what it views as its greenwashing of Amazon products. “Over the last two decades, FSC-certified concessions have destroyed old growth forests around the world. There is no legal, no ‘certified’ way dismantle the planet’s life-support system.”

Defenders of certification insist it is an important tool against forest degradation, given the realities of global timber demand.

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Kerry Cesareo, senior director for forests at the World Wildlife Fund, a founding and current FSC member, said, “Slowing degradation and deforestation comes down to ‘What’s likely to happen to those forests without it?’ It would be [ideal] if a forest could be under strict protection, but you don’t always have that option. It involves trade-offs. You can’t meet the need for what can be a very environmentally friendly product, over plastic and steel and concrete, while driving down the rate of deforestation, if you severely curtail the expansion of responsible forest management in intact forests. We try to be smart about supporting good decision making and planning.”

There is another problem. Most of the world’s timber is outside the labeling system, serving a hungry global market that overwhelmingly does not care about ”sustainability.”

“Certified timber represents just a small percentage of the market and has for a long time,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Boucher, an expert in preserving tropical forests. “It brings up the basic question of whether timber certification can transform an industry, or if the only thing it can accomplish is creating a niche market.”

Boucher thinks it is time to consider more serious medicine, namely the moratorium model that helped to drastically reduce deforestation driven by soybean farming in the ’90s. “Moratoriums work,” said Boucher. “They can work for timber.” By threatening an entire industry with a sustained global campaign against the product, as Greenpeace did with the soybean industry, Boucher believes the key trade associations can be convinced to change. Barry of EcoInternet, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic that his view may finally be gaining mainstream traction. At the FSC’s General Assembly in September, the group passed a motion, introduced by member organization Greenpeace, to form a study group to look at increasing protections of “intact primary forest landscapes.” Certification and logging in old growth forests would continue under the new approach, but with renewed focus on protecting areas with the highest value from a conservation standpoint. The WWF, for its part, has announced a goal of zero net deforestation and forest degradation by 2020.

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The past year has seen a cascade of demand-side legislation involving the trade in hardwoods: The European Union strengthened its timber regulations, the Australian government passed the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act, and in the U.S., federal prosecutors are getting more aggressive with the Lacey Act, the law regulating timber imports. At the international level, a coalition of governments, industry, and indigenous groups met at the U.N. in September to sign the New York Declaration on Forests, a pledge to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it completely by 2030. “It’s significant that both industry and governments signed on to the declaration,” said Boucher. “We’ll know in 10 years if it was part of a turning point or not.”

But achieving the zero-net goal will require even more serious action on the supply side. Rainforest nations must expand protected areas and get aggressive about prosecuting illegal loggers. No attempt to protect primary forests—consumer certification, trade agreements, national laws, international conventions—can accomplish anything without vigilant monitoring, investigation, and the credible threat of punishment. “We need to make sure there are sanctions against firms that launder illegal timber,” said Urrunaga of the EIA. “In Peru, many officials don’t even think it’s a crime. It’s just how the system works.”

In 2012, the World Bank urged governments to invest in a rigorous monitoring system that draws from lessons learned in the fight against money laundering. “To be effective, the strategy must target high-level corruption and the companies that pay bribes,” admonished the World Bank. “The criminal justice system…strategy for fighting forest crime…should include the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of cases, as well as the confiscation of the proceeds of criminal activity.”

Interpol is demonstrating how this might be done. Between January and May of last year, the Lyon-based international police-support organization helped coordinate an international sting, called Operation Amazonas, led by Peru’s customs agency. The sweep targeted the trade in illegal timber between Peru and countries including China and the U.S. (It also hit overland border crossings and ports in Brazil.) For the first time, officials from these countries shared intelligence and strategized around stopping forest crime. The surprise inspections that followed netted more than $20 million worth of laundered timber.

Operation Amazonas was modeled in part on another Interpol sting, conducted in autumn 2012, which was the first international operation devoted to large-scale forest crime in Central and South America. Under the aegis of a broader environmental crime initiative called Project Leaf, the Interpol-led action resulted in nearly 200 arrests, several deportations, and seizure of around $8 million worth of illegal rainforest hardwood across 12 countries, from Guatemala to Bolivia.

Davyth Stewart, Interpol’s coordinator for natural resources, says the organization is only getting started. “Future operations with a similar focus and global scale will be planned during the first half of 2015, with an intent to disrupt larger criminal networks that operate in multiple crime areas,” he said.

Corruption is notoriously difficult to eradicate, and frightening people out of the lucrative trade in illegal timber will take time. But the outlines of a successful strategy are beginning to come into focus. Putting an end to the permit schemes will be a crucial step. “The only way to fully guarantee the legality of timber is to go back to the field and verify that it was actually harvested from the authorized areas,” said Urrunaga. “But it will be less necessary to monitor every tree if there is the credible threat of penalty for lawbreakers.”

All this will no doubt be expensive, but producers can finance it and pass the cost on to consumers, who will pay more if they want high-value wood products badly enough. Barry says that, as with carbon emissions, the costs Amazon hardwood logging imposes on local communities and the climate ought to be borne by those who benefit from the final product—loggers, manufacturers, and retailers and their customers. “Tropical timber is going to have to be a very special thing where we pay the full ecological price incorporated into it,” he said.

In the meantime, there is a role for those on the demand side of the problem. The U.S. public can push for more resources to prosecute timber companies under the Lacey Act. It can also spread awareness that the tropical timber trade, by threatening vulnerable indigenous communities, is a human rights issue that doubles as a climate threat. Indigenous territory in the Amazon stores as much CO2 as humanity emits in a year.

The first thing people can do is to revisit the assumption that buying “certified” wood products absolves them of responsibility for destroying the world’s remaining primary rainforests. If you’re buying Peruvian mahogany, or Brazilian rosewood, or Indonesian teak, there’s no way to determine whether or not it came from a legal, carefully managed tract, or whether a villager was killed for trying to keep that tree standing.

“The tragedy of Edwin Chota shows this isn’t just about random trees being cut down,” said Urrunaga. “Illegal trees are like blood diamonds. Do you really want a beautiful living room that generated the destruction of an indigenous community?”