Greenpeace sting exposes pirate loggers

Feature story - 22 December, 2005
How do you get a shipment of illegal logs out of the Amazon and to market in São Paolo? A team of Greenpeace activists risked their lives to go undercover to show -- for the first time -- exactly how it's done.

Greenpeace activists deliver a cargo of Amazon illegal timber to the Federal Police in Sao Paulo, Brazil, completing a 5-month secret operation to expose illegal logging in the Amazon.

The head of Brazil's own Environmental Agency, IBAMA, estimates thatup to 90 percent of all Amazon timber is illegally produced. Whatnormally makes headlines is deforestation -- the wholesale clearing ofland for agriculture and roads. But less attention has been paid toselective logging, the process by which pirate loggers go into theforest for only specific trees with a high commercial value. Newevidence from satellite imagery shows that extractive logging isdestroying just as much forest -- and perhaps more -- as deforestationoperations.

We found out how this timber gets to market. And todramatically expose the loopholes and illegalities which allow thiscrime to continue, we went undercover and brought along a televisioncrew to document the precise route by which we were able to buy 40cubic meters (1400 cubic feet) of timber, turn it into 29 cubic metersof squared stock, and transport it halfway across Brazil disguised aslegally cut wood.

Step one: log it illegally

BetweenJuly and November, a Greenpeace team travelled to the Amazon state ofRondônia posing as timber buyers. They expressed an interest inpurchasing not just timber, but documentation as well. It didn't takelong to find both.

A man who identified himself as Vandinhooffered the team 40 cubic meters of Angelim (Dinizia excelsa) logs.Angelim is used in finishing work -- door frames, floors, and ceilings.Once cut, the market price for this particular timber would be between15,000 - 38,000 Euros (US$ 18,000-45,000). We paid the equivalent of1,600 Euros -- in cash -- for it at the log yard.

The timber was cut without permits from the Forest Management division of the Federal government.

Thelogs were then transported, without a permit, to the sawmill atSerraria Fotaleza, owned by an individual presenting himself as Elias.Under current Brazilian law, the timber was now in violation on threepoints. It shouldn't have been cut without a permit. It should not havebeen transported to the sawmill without documentation. And the sawmillshouldn't cut it without certificates of origin. We paid the equivalentof 1,000 Euros to have it sawn. Cash only, of course.

Step two: buy or forge documents

Shippinglogs illegally from forest to sawmill over a few kilometers is onething. Getting those logs to market in São Paolo, over 3,000 kilometresaway, is another matter. While far too few, there are inspection pointson state borders and we needed a way to get past those. The illegallogging scheme depends on an "official documents broker" to getofficial documents to whitewash the illegal timber. Sergio Krammer inArquimes offered his services. Sergio's niche in the illegal economy oftimber trade is to provide a connection between companies that haveofficial permits and tax receipts to sell and the pirate loggers whowant to whitewash their illegal wood.

The documents cost morethan the wood itself. We paid the equivalent of around 2,000 Euros eachfor three sets of documents, which rose in price between purchasesbecause "the situation was getting tense" after Federal Police showedup in the vicinity.

Subsequent analysis of the documents webought revealed them to be genuine. While forgery is also an option,real documents are not hard to obtain.

The holes on the timbercontrol system allow logging companies to get an excess ofdocumentation, which generates this parallel trade of officialdocuments to legalize illegal timber. The logging companies listed onthe documents purchased by Greenpeace are registered at IBAMA's.

Step three: drive by the inspectors

Afterbeing sawn, the timber was loaded into a shipping company vehicle inCujubim, in Rondônia. The total cost for the shipment was just over2,000 Euros, paid in cash. The shipping company was also actingillegally.

The illegal timber cargo covered more than 3,000 kilometers ofFederal and interstate highways. It crossed three state borders and twoinspection points - one in Vilhena (Rondônia) and another one in Cuiabá(Mato Grosso) before arriving in São Paulo.

It arrived in São Paulo on 6th December 2005 and sat in a warehouseuntil we picked it up for delivery to the Federal Police in São Pauloas crime evidence.

Step four: appear in front of 40 million Brazilian television viewers

Wedelivered the wood and a full crime file report to the authorities inSão Paulo. The documentary of our sting operation was broadcast onFantastico, one of Brazil's most popular television programmes.

"Ouroperation's objective was twofold: to show how Amazon illegal timbercontinues to feed the market and to pressure the Federal Government tocorrect the failures of the current logging control system," said PauloAdario, Greenpeace Amazon campaign co-ordinator. "We recognise theGovernment is trying to fight illegal logging but do not believe thatpolice operations alone will solve the problem. The current loggingcontrol system needs to be radically improved."

What will fix this?

We'vepresented a ten point set of demands to the Federal, State, and localauthorities to strengthen laws and enforcement at every stage of theillegal logging process where we saw weaknesses. President Lula wasmeeting with his cabinet the day following the television exposé, andwe expect attention to those demands to form part of the government'splans for 2006.

But all of us can do our part as well. Whilethis particular shipment stopped in Brazil, much of the illegal timbertaken from the Amazon goes out to the international market as well.

Toensure you're not part of this criminal chain, make sure you purchaseonly Forest Stewardship Council™(FSC®) certified timber products, whichensures legal origin as well as environment-friendly and socially justproduction criteria.

And what about the fate of the illegalwood? We'd like to see it used to build a school or a hospital for thechildren of Brazil. The only beneficiaries of this destruction shouldbe those who are innocent of its cause, and those who will most benefitfrom it coming to an end.

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