In February, Peru’s agency in charge of forestry and wildlife supervision, OSINFOR, sanctioned and fined two Alto Purús indigenous communities over $50,000 (US) each for logging infractions. In both cases the logging companies used the community permits to “clean” and transport illegal wood cut elsewhere. Mahogany laundering is common practice in southeastern Peru where the last remaining stands of mature trees are found only in very remote regions like the Alto Purús. Rather than work legally with communities, and pay high transportation costs (there are no roads, all wood is flown out) and comply with efficiency and reforestation requirements, loggers often choose to work illegally in protected areas and indigenous lands. However in order to transport and sell the illegal wood, they need to secure permits to show it was cut legally. This is where the communities come in.
Community leaders are persuaded to sign contracts that give total control to the loggers. This includes developing the operating plans, which provide a list of the geo-referenced trees to be cut. Unfortunately for the communities, when they sign these contracts they remain ultimately responsible for compliance with the operating plans, even though they are entirely removed from logging operations. In the case of these two communities, OSINFOR field auditors were unable to find evidence that all the trees identified in the operating plan had been cut. Instead, the loggers used the permits to transport 600 m3 or 254,000 board feet of mahogany, approximately 50 mature trees, that they had cut elsewhere. The infractions occurred between 2006 to 2008.
The loggers have not been punished. On the contrary, they have repeated the scheme in other communities. OSINFOR has detailed serious infractions in six other communities in the Alto Purús. Incredibly, every mahogany logging operation in the Alto Purús is facing fines and sanctions, in addition to the two that have already received them. One investigation of a 2011 operation found that the logger had burned several mature mahogany trees and claimed that the wood was harvested rather than pay the high transport costs of flying the wood to Pucallpa. Instead he hoped to increase profits by filling his permits with wood cut elsewhere.
OSINFOR’s field audits show improved efforts by Peru to control illegal logging spurred on by the strict environmental and forestry obligations of its free trade agreement with the United States. However this case also highlights Peru’s uphill battle to control illegal logging, particularly of mahogany. Current challenges include preventing the continued exploitation and manipulation of indigenous tribes, protecting conservation areas and indigenous lands, and effectively documenting the chain of custody of wood. UAC continues to document illegal mahogany logging in the Alto Purús region, most recently in August 2011 in the Murunahua Reserve for Indigenous People in Voluntary Isolation.
This case sheds serious doubt on Peru’s ability to ensure the legality of its mahogany exports. This has major implications for not only the US – Peru free trade agreement, but also for the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) under which mahogany is protected. Because much of Peru’s mahogany ends up in the US, it also calls into question US wood importers’ compliance with the Lacey Act which is meant to ensure that all timber imports are of legal origins.
The social implications of this case are equally distressing. The Alto Purús communities involved are among the poorest in the entire country. (According to the United Nations Development Program, the Alto Purús has a human development index among the lowest 10% of the country.) The two communities fined $50,000 are made up of approximately 10 families each that survive on traditional subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing, collecting forest resources and tending small garden plots. Neither has electricity, functioning schools, bathrooms or running water. Drinking water is taken from the sediment-filled Alto Purús River.
While a certain amount of responsibility lies with the community chiefs for signing contracts with the loggers, which most likely occurred without permission from the rest of the community, it is important to emphasize the considerable pressure these people face from unscrupulous loggers. Often the loggers fly the chiefs to Pucallpa where they are bribed with gifts and alcohol in exchange for signing over their trees. The loggers involved in this case made massive profits off of this wood, while the impoverished community is left with fines and sanctions that will hinder the development of future income opportunities through sustainable timber or non-timber forest products.
In related news, the proposed Puerto Esperanza-Iñapari Highway would bring truckloads of loggers to the Alto Purús, exacerbating pressure on its indigenous inhabitants to cut some of the world’s last mahogany trees.
More information on illegal logging and timber laundering in Peru is detailed in the recent report from the Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA), “ The Laundering Machine: How Fraud and Corruption in Peru’s Concession System are Destroying the Future of its Forests.”