The falsification of official documents has long been an open secret in laundering illegal timber from Peru’s Amazon, but no exporter has ever been exposed on camera explaining how it is done. Not until now, that is, after Global Witness has just released footage of three exporters caught up in Peru’s biggest timber scandal.
The Yacu Kallpa was the only ship transporting timber directly out of Peru’s Amazon to the USA. In September 2015 a shipment was blocked on arrival in Houston because much of it was suspected to be illegal, and then its very next shipment, leaving Peru in early December, was detained in Mexico before it could even make it to Houston. Peru’s forest inspections agency, OSINFOR, later concluded that more than 96 percent of the timber onboard was illegal.
The footage just released, recorded on undercover camera, features three of the 11 exporters involved in the shipment that was detained in Mexico. All three – Corporación Industrial Forestal’s (CIF) Adam Andrews, Inversiones WCA’s William Castro and Sico Maderas’ Dante Zevallos – admitted that documents are frequently falsified and timber regularly laundered.
Arguably the most revealing remarks are made by Zevallos, who goes into considerable detail about how official documents to extract and transport timber from one area are often used for timber from somewhere else, where permission to operate has not been granted. Sometimes this includes national parks and other “protected natural areas”, reserves inhabited by indigenous peoples in living in “isolation”, indigenous communities, or other, unassigned areas.
Zevallos told Global Witness undercover: “I can easily know it’s [the timber] not coming from a good source, because if we all bought the way we should, no one would buy a plank. So even though I knew the timber I was buying probably had this origin, I wasn’t worried, because I had [the documents]. I was a buyer in good faith.” Asked if that was what happened with the Yacu Kallpa shipment in late 2015, Zevallos replied, “Yes, all of it.”
Why does this footage matter? One, it exposes the central problem with Peru’s timber sector which is that the official documents mean little or nothing and the exporters themselves know this, despite what they claim publicly.
The most important documents to be falsified are transport permits and operating plans – the latter which have included 10,000s of faked tree locations and sometimes even faked villages.
Two, Peruvian prosecutors in Iquitos and two other Amazon towns are currently investigating the late 2015 Yacu Kallpa shipment. CIF’s Andrews and WCA’s Castro are among those being investigated, but Sico’s Zevallos isn’t.
The footage is potentially crucial evidence in securing successful prosecutions because it reveals how the exporters knew or could have presumed to know some or most of their timber was illegal. Under Peru’s Penal Code, that constitutes a crime and is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Three, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) recently announced it is blocking imports from one of the other exporters involved in the Yacu Kallpa scandal: Inversiones La Oroza.
Source of livelihood
That decision has caused considerable controversy in Peru, and was made on the basis of Oroza exporting illegal timber on the Yacu Kallpa earlier in 2015. If the USTR suspends timber from Oroza, shouldn’t it suspend timber from CIF, WCA and Sico too?
Oroza isn’t among the exporters caught on Global Witness’s undercover footage, but does feature in an accompanying report, titled “Buyers in Good Faith.” Oroza transported more timber on the Yacu Kallpa in late 2015 than any other company.
Global Witness wrote to them with a series of arguments alleging why it knew or could have presumed to know its exports were illegally sourced, but representative Luis Ángel Ascencio Pomasunco responded with the standard defence that the timber had the correct documents approved by the regional government.
The release of this footage is very timely, as the world’s political leaders meet in Bonn, Germany, for the latest United Nations climate talks. Given that Peru’s Amazon is one of the biggest tropical forests on the planet, it has a potentially crucial role to play in combatting global warming.
One major way of fulfilling that role is to meet its comparatively ambitious forest conservation commitments for zero net deforestation by 2020, and to work towards the long-term sustainable management of its vast Amazon region – home and source of livelihood for several million people.
Doing that includes ensuring that powerful, illegal operators in the timber sector, whose influence extends to the absolutely most remote parts of Peru, are punished and that exporters or other buyers are unable to hide behind falsified official documents. The game is now up. Zevallos et al can no longer seriously claim they are “buyers in good faith.”
Laura Furones is the campaign director, Peru, for the environment and social justice charity Global Witness.