Six years after investigators in Peru took down a massive timber trafficking operation that shipped millions of dollars’ worth of illegal hardwood, more than 90 people have been indicted and a US importer has been forced to pay restitution.
This has been a small victory in the battle against illegal logging in Peru’s Amazon, but one unlikely to be repeated in a climate of increasing impunity.
The two major developments come in the case of the Yacu Kallpa, the ship that carried the wood and whose name became synonymous with the country’s notoriously corrupt timber industry after its numerous runs from the Peruvian jungle city of Iquitos to Houston, Texas.
Last month, Peruvian prosecutors brought charges in the case, indicting 14 people involved in wood export companies, 38 logging concession owners, and 41 former local officials. They have been charged with crimes that include the illegal granting of rights and illegal timber trafficking, with sentences ranging from two to 11 years in prison, Ojo Público reported.
The indicted include two former officials in the regional government of Loreto, a department in northeast Peru. The officials allegedly provided false documents for the transport of illegally harvested wood. Eleven wood export companies were also named in the case.
The indictments stem from the largest seizure of illegal wood from the Yacu Kallpa, when it was stopped at Mexico’s port of Tampico in January 2016. Some 96 percent of that wood – destined for the United States – was illegally sourced, according to investigations by the Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources (Organismo de Supervisión de Los Recursos Forestales – Osinfor), the government body charged with policing the timber trade.
The sweeping charges in the case came three weeks after a California importer admitted to purchasing some illegally sourced hardwood seized aboard the Yacu Kallpa.
On September 3, Global Plywood and Lumber Trading pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act – a US conservation law covering plants, fish and wildlife. According to a US Justice Department news release, a Washington, DC court sentenced the company to pay $200,000 in restitution to Peru’s environmental ministry (Ministerio de Ambiente (MINAM) and a $5,000 fine.
The company admitted that it had failed to exercise due care when it purchased about 1,200 cubic meters of illegal hardwood from three Peruvian suppliers.
The case against Global Plywood stemmed from an earlier seizure from the Yacu Kallpa, when Homeland Security agents boarded the ship at the Port of Houston in September 2015. Prosecutors said that more than 90 percent of the wood imported by Global Plywood was illegally harvested or transported.
The charges and guilty plea in the Yacu Kallpa case are a rare example of a range of actors in the illegal logging chain – from corrupt officials to exporters and importers – being held to account. The triumph is tempered by the light punishments the accused face, the weakening of Peru’s Osinfor in the intervening six years, and the recent record loss of Peru’s Amazon rainforest to deforestation.
Rolando Navarro, the former director of Osinfor who was ousted after spearheading the Yacu Kallpa investigation, told InSight Crime that “this is a significant precedent in the fight against illegal logging because historically this has not happened in Peru nor in any other country in the region.”
Besides pleading guilty to violating the Lacey Act, Global Plywood had to pay millions to store and destroy the wood in the United States, he said. This sends the message to importers that buying lumber without due diligence could come with similar costs.
However, the charges brought by Peru’s prosecutors don’t sufficiently penalize the actors that profit most from illegal logging.
The timber concession owners alleged to have engaged in illegal logging face the severest penalties of all the accused: six to eleven years in prison. Meanwhile, the officials suspected of aiding in the laundering of illegal wood – such as functionaries alleged to have approved doctored forestry management plans or provided false transport permits – face up to four years in prison if convicted, according to a compilation of the indictments by Ojo Público.
For example, the owner of Inversiones La Oroza, the company which allegedly owned more than 80 percent of the wood seized on the Yacu Kallpa, faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison, Ojo Público reported. The same goes for the principal owner of Inversiones WCA, who appears in nearly half of the 35 proceedings, according to the news outlet. None of the people charged in the case have gone to trial or been convicted.
Both have previously denied responsibility, claiming they bought the wood in good faith and had documentation supporting its legality.
“There is still no real impact on the balance of incentives, in raising the risk of illegality,” said Julia Urrunaga, Peru director for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international non-governmental organization that probes environmental crime.
What’s more, Osinfor, the agency that investigated the Yacu Kallpa, has been progressively weakened in the intervening years by the wood industry – an industry backed by influential politicians in Peru.
In 2018, Osinfor was placed under Peru’s environmental ministry, MINAM. The decree was a blow to the independence of the agency, which had deliberately placed outside the jurisdiction of such governmental bodies at its creation.
Environmental watchdog Global Witness and other civil society organizations criticized the move, and the decree was ultimately reversed. But the agency has continued to be undermined in other ways.
“Today, Osinfor is not the same as it was a few years ago,” said Urrunaga.
An expert in forestry issues, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said that the same sectors behind the effort to weaken Osinfor have since lobbied to reduce the traceability of wood in Peru.
There is a reason there has not been another sweeping operation against illegal logging since the case of the Yacu Kallpa, Navarro said.
“There is a cover up by the forestry sector to say that everything is wonderful,” he said. “But the reality is different.”
By Maria Fernanda Ramirez, October 12, 2021, published on InSight Crime