- A new report by environmental prosecutors in Peru alleges that loggers are using permits for Brazil nut concessions as cover for illegal timber harvesting.
- The Peruvian government has now taken action by seizing files on seven suspicious cases.
On Friday 28 December 2018, prosecutor Karina Garay of Peru’s Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Madre de Dios carried out her last investigation of the year. That morning, she entered the offices of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife of Tahuamanu to seize all existing documentation on seven suspicious cases of illegal timber extraction permits in Brazil nut concessions.
The day before, she had received a report from the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) that outlined this new method to illegally extract timber in the permanent productive forests of Madre de Dios.
“The seven concessions have the same method,” Garay said. “Authorization has been given to take nuts from these forests, but in these concessions the forests are being used to extract more timber than is allowed.”
After the intervention, Garay presented a precautionary measure to the judiciary to halt the extraction, use and transportation of forest products from the seven concessions under investigation.
There are 21 people implicated in the cases, including regents and officials of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife of Tahuamanu, according to Garay.
The forestry agents found to be involved could face real jail time for including false information in timber extraction permits. According to Peruvian law, the violation is an environmental crime that warrants a three to five year prison sentence.
Officials will be charged with issuing permits that do not comply with the norms established for this type of concession. For now, concession holders will be summoned for questioning, but prosecutor Garay has not ruled out sentencing them as complicit in the fraud.
Evidence of illegality
Mongabay Latam had access to the SERFOR report, which states that there is, “A modus operandi to obtain authorization for high volumes of timber in order to protect products of illegal origin, contravening forestry legislation.”
The case came to light after SERFOR received a complaint about the deforestation of permanent productive forests in the towns of San Lorenzo and Alerta, in Tahuamanu Province.
What caught the attention of the authorities was that until Sept. 4, 2018, the forest remained intact, as proven with satellite imagery and through field verification. Yet by Sept. 29, 2018, both main and secondary forest extraction routes had appeared, with extended around 30 kilometers (almost 19 miles) and were connected to the Interoceanic Highway and stockyards. The landscape had undergone such an abrupt change in less than a month.
As part of Operación Harpía IV, in which Mongabay Latam participated, the Peruvian Air Force conducted a flyover, confirming the ongoing damage to the forests.
Vehicles were observed transiting along paths in the deforested areas, along with timber stockyards and heavy machinery. Prior to the flyover, only one satellite imagery was available and there was no information on the events occurring in the forest.
More than 20 areas were recorded in photos and videos; such geo-referenced images that were vital for determining where the timber was being extracted and for locating paths and tractors. The images recorded with the airplanes’ ADS80 and Flir cameras were able to capture the high impact that these timber extractions are having on the forests.
This operation, in addition to the SERFOR investigation, made it possible to uncover these signs of illegal logging, which may have appeared legal. The investigation has made several discoveries along the way, which have been included in the judicial file as evidence of the crime.
A concession contract for Brazil nuts that was later awarded a permit to extract timber is one piece of evidence, though there are also Peruvian Air Force images confirming the use of heavy machinery in locations where only low impact vehicles are permitted, and from which large quantities of timber should not have been extracted.
According to Mirbel Epiquién, the former director of SERFOR’s General Directorate for Sustainable Forest and Wildlife Heritage Management, management plans have allowed excessive extractions of shihuahuaco trees.
Mongabay Latam has previously warned about the participation of forest regents in the development of management plans with false information, a practice that is suspected to have been used in these seven concessions.
Permits full of tricks
One of the cases investigated – a Brazil nut concession in the town of San Lorenzo, which also has a timber extraction permit – has provided insight as to how this group of concessions, with the help of crooked officials, managed to get around the law.
When the SERFOR authorities reviewed the coordinates of the deforested area, they confirmed that the Agency for the Supervision of Forest and Wildlife Resources (OSINFOR) had withdrawn the concession in 2011, after it failed to comply with the forest management plan presented.
During the judicial process, it was shown that timber had been harvested outside the limits of the concession and that third parties had encouraged timber extractions.
Despite this precedent, in January 2018, the Regional Forestry and Wildlife Department of Madre de Dios granted a new authorization to Esteban Ovidio Hercilio, but this time as part of a Brazil nut concession. It was this façade that allowed large volumes of timber to be extracted, explained Reden Suarez, a forestry specialist who prepared SERFOR’s report.
Mongabay Latam contacted Ovidio Hercilio several times for a comment on the issue, but he received no response.
The law requires that concessions granted by the regional forestry authorities must report to SERFOR and OSINFOR within 15 days of being issuance, though in this case, that did not happen.
Furthermore, neither was informed on the approval of an interim forest management plan – authorizing the extraction of timber in the Brazil nut concession – carried out by the Department of Forestry and Wildlife of Tahuamanu on 26 September 2018, three days before the satellite images showed signs of deforestation.
In a communiqué to Mongabay Latam, OSINFOR stated: “To date we have not been sent the resolution of the concession nor the interim forest management plan.”
Julia Urrunaga, director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has questioned why the regional forestry authority has not sent the files after so many months. “This facilitates illegality – why will they not communicate? I believe it is so they can act with impunity,” stated Urrunaga.
The director of EIA believes that an illegal mechanism is being used, similar to the used in timber laundering. “It is done through false inventories, inflated inventories or simply through papers of certain timber concessions, why would it be any different for Brazil nuts?”
Despite the evidence gathered by the Prosecutor’s Office, the director of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife of Tahuamanu, Ernesto Vargas Guevara, denied everything in a telephone conversation with Mongabay Latam.
“There is nothing illegal. To approve timber extractions, we assess the resource, a report and an evaluation of each file. If the documents are not in order, the authorization is not given. We do not just offer up authorizations,” explained Vargas Guevara.
However, when asked why the information was not sent within the deadlines stipulated by law, Vargas Guevara replied “We work in coordination with OSINFOR and send all the documents. It would be a matter of reviewing the file.”
The boundary of the felling plot – the area from which the timber will be extracted – of the San Lorenzo concession is irregular, with the map of the 240-hectare area showing 592 points, almost surrounding each tree. Thus, in practice, the plot covers approximately 1,700 hectares, meaning such activities in the forest cannot be sustainable, as Suarez explained.
The same is true of the other six Brazil nut concessions for which documentation has been seized, three of them approved by Vargas Guevara. In each of these concessions, the boundary of the timber extraction area is irregular, with polygons that range between 83 to 375 points, which appear as labyrinths in the image.
When asked about these permits with the same irregularities, SERFOR issued the following in a statement: “Due to the nature of the timber activity, it is very likely that there are more cases. For that reason, the competent authorities have been urged to take immediate action in similar ways of authorized harvesting.” They also assured that, as the national forestry authority, they will follow up on the ongoing investigations.
This method of developing irregular plots appears in an OSINFOR document published in May 2018, titled Use of Timber Forest in Brazil Nut Concessions (Aprovechamiento Forestal Maderable en Concesiones de Castaña). The document mentions the discovery of several supervised plans where felling plots encompass an entire concession, “which could have led to systematic overexploitation of the timber resources in the area.”
Disappearing shihuahuaco forests
The interest in extracting shihuahuaco timber is one of the findings that has surprised authorities and experts the most. According to Dhayneé Orbegozo, a forestry specialist at the EIA, cutting down 374 shihuahuaco trees in an area of 240 hectares is excessive. The concession includes a total of 524 trees, 71 percent of which are shihuahuaco.
According to the guidelines for the development of management plans to extract timber from Brazil nut concessions, which were approved in 2016, “extractions must include on average a maximum of two trees per hectare in concessions where the main resource is the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa). In the San Lorenzo concession, the extraction amount for timber is 2.1 trees per hectare – a figure that exceeds what is permitted.”
Mirbel Epiquién, a former SERFOR official, is calling for the urgent need to update the list of threatened flora species and to include the shihuahuaco. “There’s something suspicious going on because shihuahuaco trees do not tend to grow in the quantities they mention,” noted Epiquién on the volumes reported for this plot, who suspects that this is a case of timber laundering. “It may be that the trees are being extracted from another area, perhaps even from a restricted area.”
Vicente Herrera, a Brazil nut concessionaire in Tambopata National Park, has no doubt that timber is being illegally extracted from many concessions and blames a change in the Forestry Law. “I am certain that 99.9 percent of what is included in that management plan is false. They do it to bleach wood that comes from somewhere else. They invent everything – the trees, the coordinates – it’s a serious situation,” he stated.
OSINFOR is monitoring exactly what is in these seven concessions, and whether the management plans have some degree of truth or are merely a cover for laundering timber. There is also an ongoing judicial process to obtain answers from all involved. Though for now, there is evidence available that indicates there is illegal logging occurring through Brazil nut concessions, which until resolved, will continue to wreak havoc on forests.
Correction (Feb 21, 2019): the original version of this story erroneously placed Karina Garay in “Brazil’s Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Madre de Dios”. In fact, she is in Peru’s Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. We regret the error.