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Peru pledges tougher stance against illegal timber

An Amazon rainforest tree in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

An Amazon rainforest tree in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The new measures stem partly from a 2015 shipment of timber which Peruvian officials found was almost completely illegally sourced.
  • Peruvian government estimates indicate that a full 90 percent of all sourced timber from Peru is illegal.
  • Peru has also developed Operation Amazonas to compare the timber sourcer’s reported point of harvest with government field verification data.

Peru’s recent pledge to wage a fiercer battle against illegal logging and timber trafficking could become a thorn in the side of the $30-$100 billion a year global illegal logging industry. Official Peruvian government estimates indicate that a staggering 90 percent of all sourced timber from Peru is illegal.

According to the US-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), most of these exports end up in the U.S., Australia, Mexico, Canada, Europe, and China – now the world’s largest consumer of illegal timber. The move is a boon to the U.S. Lacey Act and Peru’s Operation Amazonas, both created to combat the increasing problem of deforestation and lumber depreciation. The Lacey Act, created in 1900 to ban illegal trafficking of animals, was amended in 2008 to prohibit trade in illegally sourced wood and wood products.

During a November 2016 forest governance meeting, the Peruvian government pledged to improve the traceability of timber flows through export documentation, authentications after harvest and before export, and penalties for going against existing laws and new guidelines. Details of the stricter standards were published by EIA on November 18.

The new commitment was partly the result of an investigation stemming from the United States’ verification request of a shipment of lumber that was seized in Houston in January 2015. Peruvian officials found that nearly the entire shipment was sourced illegally.

The new provisions intersect with concerns long held by international civil society organizations and indigenous groups. For years, the Peruvian government has received requests from these organizations to deal with illegal timber sourcing and the destruction of forest and indigenous lands.

“We appreciate the signal being sent by the Kuczynski government, that they will not continue the trend of hiding behind false paperwork and are choosing to deal with the problem instead of trying to eliminate the evidence that documents it,” Julia Urrunaga, EIA’s Peru Programs Director stated at the time of the announcement.

In addition to Peru’s cooperation with the United States, the government has also developed “Operation Amazonas” to compare the timber sourcers’ reported point of harvest with government field verification data. As the only effective means of divorcing illegally-sourced timber from legally-sourced timber, Operation Amazonas also has the backing of INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization which makes it far easier to seek and obtain data.

There is cautious optimism over the changes.

“While Peru has made important progress…to combat illegal logging, there is still much more work to be done,” said U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in a statement. “For the sake of our forests, our global environment, and our shared future, we will continue to closely monitor the situation in Peru and work closely with them to advance environmental progress.”

The changes should make it far easier for the Lacey Act to take full effect in bringing illegal sourcers in Peru to justice. However, despite its success at curbing illegal logging, the question remains as to whether enforcing the law guarantees compliance.

“It doesn’t,” answers Professor Patrick A. Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, home to one of the best environmental law programs in America. “If profits are so great, then it won’t deter [companies] from continuing their practices.”

Parenteau adds that, in his opinion, the only viable course of action to curb illegal logging is to prosecute the individuals who cut down the trees. However, the Lacey Act can’t be applied to individuals outside U.S. jurisdiction. Thus, an effective response to illegal logging requires international intervention and measures taken by the individual countries impacted.

There has been some success with the use of cooperative legal tactics.

Last year, the largest fine in the U.S. over illegal logging imports was settled between the U.S. Department of Justice and the hardwood floor giant Lumber Liquidators. The company was fined $13.2 million in criminal fines, forfeiture, and community service payments. Prosecutors accused the company’s suppliers in China of using suspect wood from Myanmar and Russia.

Earlier this year in April 2016, the first case of applying the amended Lacey Act to domestic interstate trafficking was announced in Washington State. Harold Clause Kupers, owner of J&L Tonewoods, purchased big leaf maple from three different harvesters between 2012 to 2014 whom he trained on quality and tree identification. They harvested the timber illegally from Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Kupers was sentenced to six months in prison, six months of house arrest, three years of supervised release, and $159,652 in fines.

One month after Kupers’ conviction, officials raided the offices of Global Plywood and Lumber as part of an investigation into illegally imported Peruvian Amazon wood. In 2010, Inversiones La Oroza – the provider with which Global Plywood and Lumber had just begun business with – had been stripped of its logging concession by the Peruvian Forest Service after Peru’s largest yet illegal timber exports bust. There have been no formal charges brought against Global Plywood and Lumber, but the investigation is ongoing.

Banner image: An Amazon rainforest tree in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Joseph Charpentier is a freelance journalist based in the U.S. You can find him on Twitter at @charpentierjp

Editor’s note: This article erroneously listed EIA as the Environmental Information Administration rather than the Environmental Investigation Agency. We regret the error.