- Federal Police arrested and fined participants in an illegal logging and forest credit fraud scheme operating in Pará, Santa Catarina, Paraná and Mato Grosso states.
- The timber thieves were aided in this crime by gaps in the government’s licensing program and poor control of the timber production chain in Pará and Mato Grosso; lapses which authorities are now moving to correct.
- The timber thieves cut rare ipê trees on the Amazon’s Cachoeira Seca indigenous reserve, then used falsified records and a variety of companies to move the timber to other states and export the wood, used for expensive decking in the U.S., Argentina, Panama, France, Germany, the UK, United Arab Emirates and South Korea.
- Fines for illegal timber harvesting are only R$ 5,000 (US$ 1,587) per hectare; and for failing to submit proper reports, between R$ 1,000 and R$ 100,000 (US$ 317 to US$ 31,700), insignificant amounts that do little to deter a crime that can yield very high profits for perpetrators. These fines have not been increased since 2008.
Brazilian Federal Police (PF) have shut down a major illegal logging and forest credit fraud scheme operating in the states of Pará, Santa Catarina, Paraná and Mato Grosso. The gang of timber thieves was able to commit this major environmental crime due partly to gaps in the government’s logging licensing program and poor control of the timber production chain in Pará and Mato Grosso, according to experts on the matter.
The police operation code named Anhangá Arara (protective spirit of nature and the Arara Indians), focused on a family business group based in Paraná that had been conducting illegal activities in the aforementioned states, with the family patriarch responsible for overall coordination.
The gang was illegally extracting timber from the Cachoeira Seca do Iriri indigenous reserve in Pará, and then “laundered” the logs by passing them through a variety of companies and also by entering false data into the Forest Products Commercialization and Transport System (Sisflora).
This criminal activity could not likely have been accomplished, except for that fact that Pará and Mato Grosso are the only states within Legal Amazonia that have not yet joined the Origin of Forest Products Control National System (Sinaflor), established by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, last March. Sinaflor integrates information on logging exploration permits, and the transportation and storage of timber cut on rural properties.
It was an IBAMA operation conducted at the Cachoeira Seca reserve, where 105 indigenous Arara people live, that enabled the Federal Police to identify the perpetrators. When contacted by Mongabay, the police communications office said that the PF couldn’t officially disclose the names of those involved in the crime. However, IBAMA’s 2015 report sent to the PF had already cited the timber company Silva & Suski, owned by a family group whose patriarch is Nelson da Silva. Based in Rurópolis, Pará. Silva & Suski is registered under the name of Nelson’s son, Daniel Antonio da Silva, a forestry engineer.
The timber thieves focused on the extraction of ipê trees (Tabebuia impetiginosa and T. serratifolia), among the most valued of Amazonian trees; the current price of a cubic meter of ipê timber cut into boards for decks for export is US$ 2,500, according to the International Tropical Timber Association. This high potential for profit explains how the gang could compensate for the cost of opening new roads over great distances within the Amazon forest. These logging roads do significant environmental harm, as they fragment the rainforest and invite further intrusions by outsiders.
The illegally cut timber, once harvested, was sent to the ports of Belém, in Pará; Itajaí, in Santa Catarina; and Paranaguá, Paraná. The wood was then shipped to the United States, Argentina, Panama, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea, authorities said.
Data provided by FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous protection agency, indicates that Cachoeira Seca was the country’s most heavily deforested indigenous territory in 2016. From January to September of that year, 680 hectares (2.6 square miles) were deforested, and 1,773 hectares (6.8 square miles) degraded (with selective cutting of trees). The reserve covers 733,688 hectares (2,833 square miles). Free of intrusions from outsiders, indigenous groups have proven to be the best land stewards in the Amazon.
The criminals tricked government regulators into giving legal status to the timber by issuing Sustainable Forest Management Plans (PMFS) with faked numbers. The PMFS is a document prepared by an independent forest engineer, and it contains data related to the property being subjected to forest management, including the species and number of trees to be harvested, and the metric volume of timber yield, among other data. The anticipated production amount is converted into forest credits, a sort of commercialization quota passed on from log producers to sawmills and traders, to carry out legal timber transactions. Credits are deducted from the supplier and accredited to the buyer in each phase of the timber chain.
Authorities became suspicious when the documents the thieves provided had a higher volume of timber than actually existed in the licensed areas of origin. The surplus of credits — registered in the Sisflora system by the Environmental State Secretariat of Pará (SEMAS) and of Mato Grosso — had been transferred to other companies, including clandestine logging firms who later transported the wood to the ports for export.
“The companies would triangulate the timber, it is a very common procedure in this kind of criminal action,” Renê Oliveira, IBAMA’s general coordinator of environmental inspection, explained to Mongabay. “Instead of using the balance [of credits] in the original area of management, the over-numbered credits were diverted to other areas with no authorization for extraction. A margin of error of up to 10 percent in the volume of calculated timber is allowed, but in these cases the [suspicious] companies created a much higher balance.”
Scientific studies show that the volume per hectare of ipê trees in the Amazon is generally between 0.2 and 0.6 cubic meters per hectare, and rarely exceeds 0.4 cubic meters per hectare. In 2014, the Pará-based Agropecuária Santa Efigênia company was identified as having faked its numbers because it declared an implausible 5.75 cubic meters per hectare of ipê in a forest management plan. In the case of the Silva & Suski timber thieves, Sisflora granted the company credits through SEMAS Pará without verifying the numbers to see if such a harvest was possible at the falsified forest site.
“Each state should only license whatever it can inspect. Licensing and inspection need to be integrated,” Rômulo Batista, a specialist on the Amazon at Greenpeace Brazil, told Mongabay. At present, the problem is that “No automatic [alarms] are triggered when excessive numbers come up.”
According to Batista, the licensing system used in Pará and Mato Grosso is resulting in an excess of timber credits, an indicator of illegal logging and falsification. “The IBAMA and Federal Police operations are important to curbing illegal practices, but until a reform is done, that kind of fraud will probably continue,” he said.
The economic losses caused by the Silva & Suski timber company to the Cachoeira Seca indigenous reserve are estimated at R$ 897 million (about US$ 284 million) between 2010 and 2017, peaking in 2015, according to the Federal Police. In Mato Grosso, the losses were more than R$ 1 billion (US$ 317 million) over the same period.
IBAMA’S Oliveira said that the agency fined the offenders and a lawsuit was filed. For destruction or damage to forests without an authorization or environmental license, the fine is R$ 5,000 (US$ 1,587) per hectare or fraction; and for failing to submit reports within the period required by law, the fine is R$ 1,000 to R$ 100,000 (US$ 317 to US$ 31,700) — seemingly paltry amounts that likely do little to deter a crime that can yield high profits for perpetrators.
Importantly, those fines have not been increased since 2008. When questioned, the Ministry of the Environment responded through its communications office, saying that the levels of fines are established by, and can only be increased through, presidential decree. No fine increase decrees were issued under the Rousseff administration, or to date under the Temer government.
The Environment and Sustainability Secretariat of Pará (SEMAS) told Mongabay that IBAMA’s proposal to integrate the data generated on Sisflora and the Integrated Environmental Monitoring and Licensing System (Simlam), with the federal system Sinaflor is expected to occur by the end of the year. IBAMA and SEMAS technicians are meeting this week to discuss the integration process details.
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