Counting Illegal Logging As Progress

Amid the Plunder of Forests, a Ray of Hope


A sawmill in Peru, where more than half of the logging operations are illegal. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Strange as it may sound, we have arrived at a moment of hope for the world’s forests. It is, admittedly, hope of a jaded variety: After decades of hand-wringing about rampant destruction of forests almost everywhere, investigators have recently demonstrated in extraordinary detail that much of this logging is blatantly illegal.


Mar-a-Lago, Entrance to Master Suite from Cloister, 1967,
United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

This recent op-ed has a perfect final thought, and the photo here to the left is our way of offering a preview to that point. Richard Conniff, the op-editorialist, has frequently been featured in our pages, linking this type of story. You might also click the green cover below to go to one example of how this progress has been years in the making), but read this editorial all the way through before being distracted by the side stories, though they are equally relevant and important. Conniff continues:

Honduras Logging

And surprisingly, people actually seem to be doing something about it. In November, the European Court of Justice put Poland under threat of a 100,000-euro-per-day fine for illegal logging in the continent’s oldest forest, and early this month Poland’s prime minister fired the environment minister who authorized the logging.

In Romania, two big do-it-yourself retail chains ended purchasing agreements with an Austrian logging giant implicated in illegal logging there. And in this country, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, normally dedicated to free trade at any cost, has barred a major exporter of Peruvian timber from the American market after repeated episodes of illegal shipments.

The recent history of a container ship called the Yacu Kallpa is a good example of the push to stop illegal loggingAlong with its predecessors, it ran a regular route for decades from the river town of Iquitos, Peru, to Houston, delivering millions of board feet of stolen timber from the Amazon to unwitting American consumers.

Corrupt government agents and the black market happily provided transport documents to draw a veil of fictitious legality over whatever came floating down the river from the Amazon forest. Or as one exporter shipping timber on the Yacu Kallpa put it to an undercover investigator from the nonprofit Global Witness, “This tree miraculously becomes legal timber, just because of a piece of paper.” Exporters could point to that piece of paper and claim to be merely “buyers in good faith.”

That make-believe mind-set sufficed until Peru’s customs service and its forest watchdog agency, together with investigators from the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, tried to connect export shipments back to their reported harvest sites and found that almost none of the timber came from anyplace legal.

Acting on that information, United States federal agents met the Yacu Kallpa at the dock in Houston in September 2015 and seized 71 shipping containers of timber worth more than $1 million. Investigators would later determine that 92 percent of the timber on that shipment was illegal. The Yacu Kallpa then simply turned around and tried to do it again.

“People are doing these things because they know they can,” said Laura Furones, leader of the Peru campaign at Global Witness. “The level of impunity is astonishing.”

Indeed, on that next and final Yacu Kallpa shipment, 96 percent of the timber was illegal, according to investigators in Peru, putting the Iquitos-to-Houston connection out of business. That was also the basis for the trade representative’s barring of the Peruvian exporter La Oroza. Federal prosecutors in this country and Peru are now conducting criminal investigations against more than 100 people in the Yacu Kallpa case, including American importers that also relied on the “buyer in good faith” fiction.

The last time the Department of Justice prosecuted a major illegal logging case, in 2016, the culprit, Lumber Liquidators, paid a $13.1 million fine. But no company executives have gone to jail for trafficking in stolen timber. And the sort of scrutiny applied in the Lumber Liquidators and the Yacu Kallpa cases is still the rare exception.

So where’s the hope? This may sound naïve, but making the illegality so blatantly obvious ought to drive the timber industry to clean up its own act. Failing that, technology will start to do the job for them. One way to bring the worldwide epidemic of stolen forests under control, according to Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, would be to require timber concession holders to register their trees in a public database. Every logging truck would then have to report by cellphone, before leaving the forest, which trees it is carrying. The ambition is traceability, right through to the finished product in the consumer’s local big box store or lumberyard. It sounds cumbersome, Mr. von Bismarck admits, except when the alternative is a trade made up of more than 90 percent stolen goods…

Read the whole editorial here.

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