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 November 13, 2018
The last trees of the Amazon

 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.

All roads lead to Peru. Researchers in Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador say the timber taken from their land is sent to the Peruvian Amazon, where it is processed and sold. To understand the magnitude of the region's timber trafficking situation, one only needs to look at the number of people prosecuted for illegal logging. A database created by OjoPúblico determined that between 2009 and 2017, almost 8,000 people in Peru were investigated by environmental prosecutors and judges for cases related to illegal logging and timber trafficking.

Newly threatened species

In the face of the increased protection of tree species with high commercial value, like mahogany and cedar, the industry has begun to threaten other trees in the Amazon. For example, in the last few years, the price of the logging and exportation of the shihuahuaco tree (Dipteryx micrantha) has increased significantly. A committee of scientists who analyzed the shihuahuaco estimated that if the pressure on the tree continues, the species is doomed to extinction.

The only way to ensure adequate control over the export of different types of timber would be to ensure that companies record the correct name of the species in documents --- but this often isn't the case. Customs officials don't require them to do so, and the vast majority of companies only declare the amount of timber without recording exactly which species they're exporting. The few companies that do record the exact species usually use the local names for the trees instead of official names, making it difficult to collect reliable data on the type of timber being exported. The use of the true species names would allow more effective control over the exported material.

Furthermore, the list of threatened plant species in Peru has not been fully updated in 12 years. Lobbyists for the timber industry came under the spotlight recently when a scientific document was halted that would have recommended putting the shihuahuaco tree on the list of threatened species.

Deforestation

Illegal logging in the Amazon contributes to the spread of permanently deforested areas already cleared by ranchers, illegal miners and farmers. In Colombia, 70 percent of the country's deforestation is concentrated in its Amazonian region. With the disbanding in 2014 of the armed guerrilla group FARC, which controlled much of Colombia's forested areas, the country's deforestation increased by 44 percent. The forests of the Quibdó area, in western Colombia, have been hit the hardest.

The deforestation of Colombia's Amazon is compounded by armed conflicts involving remnants of the FARC and armed paramilitary groups along drug trafficking routes toward the Pacific. In Peru's Madre de Dios region, the deforestation is driven by illegal mining.

In a short article published in the journal Science Advances in February this year, researcher Thomas Lovejoy warned that the Amazon's forests are approaching a point of no return. By his calculations, the Amazon, which is shared by nine countries, has over the past 50 years lost 17 percent of its total vegetation. Lovejoy said that if this number reached 20 percent, one of humanity's last massive green areas would no longer be able to be restored.

Colombian authorities say they will no longer be able to fulfill their agreement to achieve zero deforestation by 2020. In fact, data from the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) suggest that Colombia's deforestation will increase by 200 percent. Authorities in Peru, which has also pledged zero deforestation by 2020, have not yet commented.

A lack of joint strategies

The actions taken to date against timber trafficking have not been coordinated between the countries that share the Amazon. Aside from sporadic interventions in which Interpol participates, the governments of Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador have no comprehensive plans to eliminate the global trafficking of timber from the Amazon and stop the targeting of certain species.

Last year in Ecuador, for example, a 10-year ban was placed on mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). That ban, however, doesn't extend to Peru or Bolivia. Criminal procedures also differ in each country: in Peru, timber trafficking is a jailable offense, while in Bolivia and Colombia it's only an administrative crime. Customs practices also vary. Timber export documents aren't standardized, and exporters aren't obliged to record the name of the type of timber they export. The use of local, unofficial names for the trees in place of a species name makes it difficult to calculate the amount of timber transported globally based on species.

With the publication of the international investigation #MaderaSucia, we begin the first of a series of reports in which we try to unravel the system that allows the indiscriminate looting of trees from the Amazon, as well as the seemingly unstoppable increase in the international demand for these resources at the cost of environmental degradation and rampant violence.

Award-winning biologist Hope Jahren explained the consequences of humanity's unstoppable appetite for resources in her book, Lab Girl: "Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and timber. 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 600 years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump."

COLOMBIA

Every three months, Colombia receives bad news about its forests. In short, periodic bulletins, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) warns of what's already become obvious: the country is destroying its forests.

The red dots in these bulletins, which represent the main points of deforestation, tend to vary over time. Sometimes they cluster more to the southwest or north, near Venezuela. Other times, they extend to the foothills of the Andes or toward the Pacific. One thing remains constant, though: they are always in the Amazon. It's almost like an epidemic is spreading through thousands of hectares of forests, and there's no way to contain it.

How timber trafficking works

Evidence of illegal timber trafficking is scattered throughout Colombia. Along the Atrato and Putumayo rivers, in the heart of the Colombian Amazon, barges drag large sections of trees cut down from protected forests in the Amazon or from Darién National Park. Trucks transport huge logs along main roads while avoiding the controls set up by environmental authorities. Many citizens unknowingly buy these timber products for their homes. They may not know the illegal origins of these products, but they play a part in the chain of actions destroying Colombia's forests.

Timber trafficking is a multimillion-dollar industry. Its horrific force is concentrated on the world's greatest jewels of diversity: on the most valuable and rarest species of trees. Selective logging devastates specific ecosystems and finishes off certain species of plants. According to IDEAM, illegal logging in Colombia accounts for 10 percent of all deforestation.

PERU

In the small port of Sabaluyoc in Peru's Amazonian region of Madre de Dios, a group of loggers has just finished unloading timber from a boat. The sky fills with dark clouds, and the loggers will have to wait until the rain passes before they can take a dirt path toward the Interoceanic Highway, which connects this area of Peru to Brazil.

One of the greatest threats to the Amazon is the illegal logging of trees that are more than 500 years old. For the past few years, the shihuahuaco tree has been one of the most sought-after species. It is a giant, slow-growing tree that, over the course of 700 years, reaches a height of more than 49 meters and a diameter of more than a meter.

The slow disappearance of the shihuahuaco in the jungles of Peru

The shihuahuaco trees that have been cut down in recent years are innumerable. To get an idea, a recent study by a group of scientists from the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) of Peru estimated that, over a period of 10 years, an average of 74 shihuahuaco trees were cut down per day. In other words, more than 270,000 trees of that species alone have been cut down in that time.

Figures like these often grab the attention of the scientific community, but that isn't enough. The shihuahuaco tree still isn't included on the list of threatened species, which should have been updated four years ago. A new report obtained by Mongabay Latam also confirms that the species is critically endangered, and warns that the shihuahuaco could disappear in the next 10 years from two different regions of the country if the current logging rate continues.

BOLIVIA

The main square in the small town of San Carlos, Bolivia, appears peaceful. Around noon on a Tuesday in April, there is very little activity in the streets. The area is full of vegetation, and Amboró National Park is within view of the main square.

The residents of the community say the national park's biodiversity is far from safe. It's become a favorite place for timber traffickers over the decades. San Carlos is one of seven municipalities that surround the protected area.

The three operations conducted each year in the park are not enough to control the problem. Víctor Hugo Chávez, the director of productive development and the environment of San Carlos, says residents of the communities always "see chunks of timber or heavy materials passing by, being transported on the river."

MEXICO

The lack of effective control points on timber imports from the Peruvian Amazon has turned into an opportunity for a group of Mexican business owners. Between 2013 and 2016, various Peruvian companies sent Mexico more than 6,060 cubic meters (214,110 cubic feet) of timber with suspicious origins. The shipment arrived on the Yacu Kallpa ship. About 81 percent of the timber in the shipment was received by 10 different Mexican companies.

The black hole in Mexico's forestry legislation

Data suggest that in one year, more than 1.4 million cubic meters (50 million cubic feet) of timber are sold in Mexico. This number comes from the report "Perspectives of the Forest Industry," an analysis presented in 2017 by the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR).

In Mexico, however, unlike in the United States, the import and sale of illegally sourced timber is not prohibited, nor is it classified as a crime, according to the General Law for Sustainable Forest Development of Mexico.

Over the past 15 years, Mexico's forestry laws have only imposed administrative sanctions for the absence or falsification of documentation about the origins of timber. The law in question has focused mainly on controlling plant diseases.

ECUADOR

William Angulo hadn't finished cutting a cedar tree trunk when he felt the impact of nine spears in his body. While he escaped the attack alive, he died days later from an infection at a hospital in Quito, the Ecuadoran capital, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the Amazon. His attackers were a group of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation.

Andrés Moreira, Angulo's friend, had gone with him to harvest trees in the Ecuadoran jungle. Moreira had better luck and survived to tell the story.