Peru and the U.S. must unite to combat illegal logging

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Brittney Figueroa

With intense repercussions not only for Peru but for the entire global ecosystem, greater international attention must be given to this crime.

This past November, the Peruvian government and the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) announced advances in combating illegal logging in the South American country. This crime has intense repercussions for Peru, and the global ecosystem, and therefore calls for greater international attention. Increased cooperation between Lima and Washington is required, as many illegal logging shipments from the Andean nation are exported to the U.S. market.

The Problem

In order to provide a proper idea of the magnitude of this crime, we will first mention some official data and recent incidents. According to Peruvian government statistics, in 2015 a total of 39,294.803 cubic meters of wood (or over 95 thousand trees) were extracted from unauthorized areas. Statistics are not yet available for 2016, but a few incidents prove this is a major ongoing problem.

For example, this past December, authorities in the Loreto region regained over 1,000 pieces of wood (types like lupuna, copaiba, quinilla, shihuahuaco -ironwood tree- and utucuro) that were being transported without proper documentation. That same month, security officers, aided by indigenous Peruvians, detained two vehicles that were transporting 1,120 feet of cedar wood in the Pasco region. This incident is particularly troubling because the cedar was illegally extracted from the San Matias San Carlos forest, an area under supposed government protection.

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Illegal wood found in Loreto (Photo: El Comercio)

The problem is exacerbated as many shipments are transported and exported relatively easily. A September report by the Peruvian daily El Comercio stated that, according to Peruvian authorities, between 2009 and 2016, 80% of 4,420 logging shipment inspections (to ensure that they were taken from authorized areas) had some sort of irregularity. The most frequent is timber laundering, namely the falsification of documents to make timber appear as if it had been legitimately harvested.

Further, in regions where illegal logging is rampant, such as Ucayali, seized wood can still make it into the market, as corrupt local authorities can falsify documents about the wood's origin. This scenario is best exemplified by the April 2016 arrest of 19 members of a logging mafia, which included local authorities and security officers who worked with criminals to facilitate the export of illegal wood.

The U.S.- Peru Connection

As for the way the U.S. fits in this situation, according to a 2012 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), up to 20 U.S. companies were involved in illegal logging that originated in Peru. Following this revelation, that same year the EIA formally petitioned Washington to 'œverify the legal origin of shipments from at least two Peruvian companies [Maderera Bozovich SAC and Maderera Vulcano SAC], and to audit dozens more.' One incident worth mentioning was featured in Al Jazeera's 2015 documentary, Peru's Rotten Wood. The film explains how a company called 'œInversiones La Oroza SRL, is owned by the same proprietors of a timber concession, Oroza Wood SAC, that was cancelled in 2012 after EIA's report illustrated that their illegal timber was coming to the United States.' That is to say that company owners can flout responsibly and create companies under different names after the originals are 'œred flagged.'

It is worth noting that a free trade agreement (FTA) between Washington and Lima has been in effect since January 2009. The FTA is significant because it has a section directly addressing illegal logging that allows U.S. authorities to both audit and verify the origins of suspicious shipments. However, the U.S. did not invoke the procedures provided in the agreement until late February 2016, when the USTR requested that Peru verify the legality of a single La Oroza shipment. Not surprisingly, in August 2016, the shipment was found to contain a significant amount of illegally harvested timber.

While the aforementioned incidents explain why illegal logging in Peru has been so difficult to combat, the recent November meeting between Peruvian and U.S. authorities regarding this issue offers a glimmer of hope, as it is a sort of 'œnext step' under the FTA framework. The meeting, the first since Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski took office, thankfully did make mention of common goals, such as the much-needed modification of documentation of exports within the supply chain in order to increase transparency.

Final Thoughts

Nowadays, governments recognize that environmental crimes constitute a national security problem. Activities such as illegal logging, illegal fishing, or wildlife trafficking depredate a country's natural resources, resulting in violence, loss of revenue for the state, as well as in the destruction of the environment. It would be wrong of us not to acknowledge that Peruvian authorities seem to understand this problem, as made clear in their statements and actions, including the 2015 Legislative Decree No. 1220, which creates a legal framework to combat illegal logging.

Nevertheless, more success is needed. The amount of illegally seized wood over the past few years is alarming and Lima-Washington cooperation will be key to combat it under the 2009 FTA framework. It is imperative that U.S. authorities promote stricter regulation on the 'œdemand' side of the problem to seize illegally harvested wood, and provide support to the Peruvian government and civil society organizations to help protect the South American nation's rich environment.

W. Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is an international security analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Brittney J. Figueroa is a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a Bachelors degree in Global Studies, and a Minor in Latin American Iberian Studies.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.

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W. Alejandro Sanchez an international security analyst who focuses on geopolitics and defense & security security issues. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones (UAVs) for civilian and security uses in Latin America. He is a regular contributor for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, Living in Peru, the Center for International Maritime Security, among others. His analyses have appeared in numerous refereed journals including Small Wars and Insurgencies, Defence Studies, the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, European Security, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Perspectivas. His Twitter is @W_Alex_Sanchez and his personal blog is Geopolitics.