By Cecilia Remón
“For every legal tree, three illegal trees can be laundered,” said Julia Urrunaga, Forests and Climate Policy advisor at the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency, or EIA.
Urrunaga was referring to the bureaucratic melee that legalizes, through documents that the authorities never check, the trade of timber from unauthorized areas in the Peruvian Amazon.
An EIA report, “The Laundering Machine: How fraud and corruption in Peru’s concession system are destroying the future of its forests,” released in Lima on Apr. 10, explains how the system works.
“The mechanism that the industry has therefore developed is simple to describe: the concessionaires submit for approval lists of trees that do not exist in the real world, and complicit authorities approve the extraction of this non-existent wood. Backed by these ‘volumes’ of imaginary trees, the corresponding official documents (Forest Transport Permits, or GTFs) are sold in the black market and used to launder wood extracted illegally from elsewhere — national parks, indigenous territories, other public lands. No posterior controls will detect this illegality without returning to the original concession to verify whether logging was actually done. And even when the fraud is verified in the field, this is apparently not sufficient to intervene and stop it. Despite the fact that many of supervisions the governmental Supervisory Body for Forest Resources and Wildlife, or OSINFOR, continues to conduct have detected multiple illegalities, the majority of these concessions known to be at fault continue to operate and sell to the export markets,” according to the report.
The root of the problem
Urrunaga said the key to understanding this complicated mechanism is the GTF — granted by regional environmental authorities or by the Technical Administration for Forestry and Wildlife Control, or ATFFS, both part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s General Directorate of Forestry and Wildlife, in the case where that role has not been transferred to regional governments — without which the illegal timber cannot be laundered.
“The system functions in the following way: First, licenses are granted for the concessions, although indigenous communities can obtain special permits to export timber. Then, the company that has the concession presents a Forest Management Plan, a sort of census or inventory of the species on the land,” Urrunaga explained. “Thirdly, the concessionary presents [to the ATFFS] an Annual Operations Plan, or POA, in which it specifies the number of species that will be felled and how much. Before authorizing the POA, the authority must make visual verification in case there is mahogany or cedar among the species that will be logged. Finally, an administrative order is issued approving the quantity.”
Nevertheless, the problem is that the inventory is taken from offices. “False or partially false inventories are made, quantities of trees are approved that don’t exist, guides are obtained on the black market for timber from somewhere else, because when a guide is issued no one enters the forest to check it out,” Urrunaga said.
The EIA report presented 14 cases that help demonstrate the methods behind illegal logging. The cases include inventing POAs without any field work, presenting fake POAs, inventories of trees that don’t exist, trees that are felled several times, concessions without trees but where timber is harvested, and logging conducted without touching any trees, among others
“Sometimes intentionally, sometimes through sheer negligence, each of the actors and agencies involved in this system are working as gears in a well-oiled machine that is ransacking Peru’s forests and undermining the livelihoods and rights of the people that depend on them,” according to the report.
On the business side, although there are some firms — very few — that try to work in a legal and sustainable way, for the majority corruption is the norm. At least 35 percent of the timber exported to the United States between January 2008 and May 2010 were of illegal provenance. Of the 305 licenses granted in that period, 112 state places where there was no timber, or OSINFOR found serious illegal actions.
The report maintains that at least 100 permits granted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, to export mahogany and cedar to the United States included wood declared to be from concessions strongly questioned by OSINFOR, either for “falsification of up to 100 percent of forest inventories, misuse of permits to launder illegally extracted timber, unlawfully felling trees in the loggers’ own concessions, or a combination of the above.”
Logging firm Bozovich, a leader in the field, has the highest number of shipments of timber of questionable origin. Although it has permits from the Forest Stewardship Council, which guarantee the legality of sustainability of the timber the companies trade, the investigation found serious problems with regard to the legal origin of some of its products. The firm’s owners and high-ranking executives are very well-connected in the industry and in politics, which has allowed the company to operate freely. In 2005, government inspectors reported that one of the company’s concessions was extracting more timber than allowed, but the company got the complaint thrown out.
In a communiqué published Apr. 12, Bozovich denied exporting illegal timber and labeled the EIA report as “imprecise, incomplete, and biased.”
An investigation titled “Termitas” (“Termites”) by Peruvian NGO Legal Defense Institute, or IDL, published Apr. 10, emphasized how logging mafias take advantage of indigenous communities and defraud them.
Anthropologist Alberto Chirif, quoted by IDL, said “the loggers offer the indigenous [population] overvalued goods for undervalued timber. When they exhaust [the wood supply] in one community, they head to another. Sometimes they pay them little, other times nothing. Sometimes they are paid in food, other times in drink. They are not rubber barons: they are timber harvesters, unforgiving loggers. They are not termites, although they seem like it. They prefer to call themselves businessmen.”
“Here companies resemble gangs more than businesses,” said Chirif. “There aren’t logger businessmen: they are forest raiders … I don’t know what else to call them. There isn’t even a notion of capitalism. The idea is to find what can be robbed fastest, until that resource is gone. A real businessman would try to take care of his resources and would be interested in its long-term development. They extract wood with the same mentality used to mine copper.”
The World Bank has also set its sights on this illegal business, stating that “the exploitation of illegal timber in some countries accounts for up to 90 percent of logging and generates at least US$10 billion to $15 billion in illegal profits.” The World Bank is in agreement with the EIA and IDL that in Peru, 80 percent — 98 percent in some Amazonian departments, like Loreto — of logging is illegal and is connected to corruption at the highest levels of government.
“Despite compelling data and evidence showing that illegal logging is a worldwide epidemic, most forest crimes go undetected, unreported, or are ignored,” according to the World Bank paper “Justice for forests : improving criminal justice efforts to combat illegal logging,” published March 20. “These estimates do not capture the enormous environmental and societal costs of these crimes—how they threaten biodiversity, increase carbon emissions, cause landslides, and undermine the resource-based livelihoods of rural peoples, with ringleaders and organized crime profiting at the expense of the poor.”
Former environmental officials believe that urgent reform of the forestry sector is necessary.
Biologist Sandro Chávez, former head of the National Service of Areas Protected by the State, or SERNANP, believes “the model for how concessions are awarded, the systems for granting use permits, the monitoring and control mechanisms, and the procedures for issuing export documents (including CITES permits) are not working to address the large quantities of illegal timber being harvested and marketed nationally and internationally.”
The EIA report, Chávez adds, “brings to the table the need for major reform of the forestry sector. In fact, it is very important for authorities like the Comptroller’s Office [or] the Attorney General’s Office to take action against those found responsible criminally, civilly and administratively of these illegal activities that have been operating in an organized manner both inside and outside the State.”
The PCM, in a statement released two days after the presentation of the EIA report, admitted that “there is currently inadequate harvesting of forest resources, bad forestry practices (deforestation), illegal logging and trade, (and) excessive and scattered laws regarding forests and wildlife,” and announced that it will implement a series of measures to stop illegal logging, including an evaluation of the forest concession system in the country and the creation of a forestry tax court.