Our Role in Stopping the Illegal Brazilian Mahogany Trade

Feature story - October 15, 2003
In October 2001, Paulo Adario, Greenpeace's Amazon Forest Coordinator, began receiving death threats. These threats were so serious that Brazilian authorities decided to provide him with around the clock protection. What led to this extraordinary state of affairs?

The Problem

Corruption and illegalities in the mahogany trade have been an open secret within the timber sector for years. By 1997, the Brazilian government estimated that 80% of all logging in the Brazilian Amazon was illegal.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon comes from two directions. In the south, the expansion of cattle ranching and soybean production is rapidly replacing native forests. In the east, the logging sector based in Pará State is ever marching westward. Unlike deforestation elsewhere in the world, Brazil's logging sector rarely practices clearcutting. Instead, deforestation occurs gradually. The first step is mahogany logging.

From the forest's edge, mahogany prospectors fly high above the rainforest canopy searching for single mahogany trees easily identified from the air by their distinctive canopy. Unlike most temperate and boreal tree species, tropical mahogany trees typically grow, not in clustered groves, but in relative isolation from one another. When a tree is spotted, its location is catalogued by handheld global positioning systems. When enough trees are mapped, illegal roads, sometimes stretching many miles, are punched from the forest's edge in a straight line, through national parks, through indigenous reserves, through private lands, straight to the tree in question. From this new illegal road, other roads are punched to other mahogany trees until the area is stripped of the species.

In the following years, other loggers use the newly established illegal road network in search of other valuable hardwood species. A few years later, prospectors set out for less valuable softwood species. Soon the region's many poor, in search of better lands, begin to colonize the areas, and cattle ranching is not far behind.

According to investigations carried out by the Federal Police (the Brazilian counterpart to FBI), the groups involved with illegal mahogany trade in the Amazon use the same methods as the narco-traffickers. These practices include bribery, extortion, slavery and violence against those who oppose them. "We are not dealing with small bandits, but with a mafia," said the Federal Police Marshal Jorge Barbosa Pontes, in an interview published by the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo on October 6, 2002.

Greenpeace Enters the Picture

In 1999, Greenpeace established an office in the heart of the Amazon basin to document the illegalities in the Brazilian logging sector. As work proceeded, it soon became clear that Greenpeace needed to focus on the nation's lucrative and illicit mahogany trade.

Mahogany is the only Amazonian species of wood valuable enough to subsidize the ever-expanding networks of illegal roads. One mahogany tree, whose price in forest areas is about US$30, can produce US$130,000 worth of furniture in the U.S. marketplace. Greenpeace realized that if the mahogany trade was forced to respect Brazilian laws, the cycle of illegal deforestation could be greatly curtailed and eventually brought under control.

The illegal logging of mahogany and the criminal practices that accompany it have been documented by various NGO reports, such as Friends of the Earth's Mahogany is Murder (1992) and TRAFFIC's Mahogany Matters (2000). The problem has also been highlighted in various government proposals to give mahogany greater protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

However, the Brazilian government did not truly act until Greenpeace became involved and provided unprecedented detailed information of criminal logging activities and provided support for stopping these crimes.

On September 26, 2001, after several years of on-the-ground investigation, Greenpeace presented documentation of large-scale illegal mahogany logging on public and Indian lands in the state of Pará to the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor's office, to the Minister of Environment, and to the president of the Brazilian Government Institute for Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA).

Greenpeace established for the first time that virtually all the mahogany trade in Pará was controlled by enterprises accused of a series of illegalities and headed by two mahogany kingpins: Moisés Carvalho Pereira and Osmar Alves Ferreira.

Greenpeace published its evidence in a report, Partners in Mahogany Crime: Amazon at the Mercy of "Gentlemen's Agreements," released in October 2001. The report examined the Brazilian mahogany trade and exposed widespread illegalities in the sector, including accounts of logging inside Kayapó Indian lands and the rampant use of fraudulent governmental transportation documents. In the United States -- the nation that imports the most mahogany, Greenpeace also released the results of a three-month field investigation documenting approximately 70 U.S. companies that purchased wood from the mahogany kingpins.

In reaction to the media frenzy and subsequent public outcry stemming from the Greenpeace report, the Brazilian government conducted its own investigation into mahogany forest management. Shortly after the investigation began, on October 22, 2001, the government officially froze all mahogany operations and transportation until a detailed field investigation of the entire trade could take place. The story made headlines in Brazil.

Greenpeace Works with the Brazilian Government on Operation Mahogany

Greenpeace's efforts were successful in spurring long-needed action by the Brazilian authorities because, for the first time, specific locations where illegal logging was taking place were identified, specific illegal activities were cited, and actors and accomplices were named. Armed with this information, a group of reform-minded individuals from IBAMA decided to act.

Brazil environmental enforcement agency IBAMA, launched Operation Mahogany, typified by dramatic field raids, in which heavily armed Brazilian government officials, accompanied by Greenpeace staff, landed in helicopters at illegal mahogany logging operations throughout Pará State.

Brazilian authorities used the Greenpeace ship, the M.V. Arctic Sunrise, which was in the region at the time, as a base of operations for the raids. A Greenpeace airplane was used to transport government officials and supplies. The Brazilian government supplied the law enforcement and Greenpeace supplied the intelligence. In the first 11 days of Operation Mahogany, authorities seized US$7,000,000 worth of illegally cut mahogany. Over the months that followed, the authorities, with Greenpeace support, continued to conduct raids and arrest violators, including a document forgery ring that facilitated the illegal mahogany trade.

It was during this time that Paulo Adario, Greenpeace's Forest Campaigner in the Amazon - and perhaps the organization's most visible spokesperson in the region - began receiving death threats.

The Mahogany Fight Goes International

Brazil is a large country, and corruption in the mahogany trade is notorious. Despite the government-imposed moratorium, trade continued clandestinely. Significant amounts of mahogany were still being exported to the United States and Europe, and Greenpeace continued to document cases of clandestine smuggling.

In 2002, mahogany was one of the only commercially traded tree species in the world covered under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It was listed on CITES Appendix III, which requires the exporting government to verify that the product was legally harvested. In the early stages of the government's ban, several mahogany exporters petitioned local judges. Exporters sought out friendly judges who acted without hearing opposing arguments and were granted individual injunctions allowing them to export specific amounts of mahogany waiting at the docks in the ports of Belém (Pará state) and Paranaguá (southern Brazil). With little time to reverse the lower court's ruling before export IBAMA took the unprecedented step of stamping all CITES export documents with the following:

"This Export was determined by Precarious Judicial Decision (Injunction)".

This stamp warned that IBAMA had serious doubts as to the legal status of the wood, and the agency is the only entity in Brazil allowed to authorize CITES export papers.

When these shipments arrived in the United States carrying the "Precarious Judicial Decision" stamp, the U.S. government contacted the Brazilian government for clarification. IBAMA responded that it could not verify the legality of the shipments under CITES. Upon request from the Brazilian government, the United States began seizing Brazilian mahogany shipments at customs ports up and down the eastern seaboard. Several European governments followed suit.

The chain of events that followed is not clear, but it is evident that a series of high-profile governmental communications ensued, including a ruling by the Geneva-based CITES Secretariat, arguing that if Brazil could not verify legality, then permits should never have been granted. As the U.S. and much of the European Union waited, lawsuits were filed on behalf of importers in London and Washington over the legality of the shipments.

In February 2002, IBAMA President Hamilton Nobre Casara, the official spearheading the mahogany crackdown in Brazil, traveled to the U.S. and received assurances from Assistant Secretary of State John Turner that the United States would help Brazil with its mahogany crisis. During a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., Mr. Casara thanked the U.S. government for its continued support and singled out the work of Greenpeace in exposing the problem.

Political pressure mounted as U.S. importers began to fear that they might not be able to import their products now seized at Brazilian and U.S. ports. Typically, U.S. importers pay half the cost of the mahogany up front, months before receiving a shipment. Brazilian exporters claimed they had fulfilled their side of the bargain. With millions of dollars at stake, business enterprises involved made numerous efforts to make the problem go away. If the Brazilian government simply declared the seized wood as legal, said there had been some mistake, then the U.S. and Europe would be forced to release the wood held in customs ports in accordance with CITES.

The matter would have been swept under the rug and the illegal shipments released to their buyers, if it had not been for the tremendous media attention generated in large part by Greenpeace. The spotlight burned bright as major stories appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Outside Magazine, and on CNN in the U.S., to name but a few. The story also received considerable coverage in Europe and dominated the pages of Brazilian papers.

In order to support IBAMA and the reformers within the Brazilian government, Greenpeace kept the story alive. By continuing to generate media and political pressure, Greenpeace hoped to ensure that any decisions made were done so in an open and transparent manner. Throughout the spring and summer of 2002, Greenpeace staged dramatic public protests from Brasilia to London to Hamburg, all aimed at keeping the pressure on.

In an April 9, 2002 national radio address, Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso reaffirmed his pledge that the federal government would maintain the prohibition against the exploitation of mahogany.

The April 2002 Greenpeace Protest in Miami

On April 12, 2002, several miles off the Florida coast, Greenpeace activists in small zodiac boats approached the container ship APL Jade that was headed for the Port of Miami. Greenpeace had learned that the Jade was carrying illegal mahogany from Brazil, as it had done on previous trips to the U.S.

Two Greenpeace activists climbed the ship's pilot ladder with a banner reading, "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging." As is standard practice for Greenpeace, the activists staged their protest peacefully, with strong attention to safety and protection of property. The activists, including the two individuals that actually climbed onto the Jade, wore Greenpeace insignia on their clothing and identified themselves as Greenpeace members. Radio transmissions indicated that the APL Jade's crew understood that the protesters were from Greenpeace.

Eventually 14 individuals from the Greenpeace zodiacs were arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard and detained at the Coast Guard dock in Miami.

For several hours, the Greenpeace activists waited on the dock as media crews filmed from a distance. On several occasions, they were told that they would be held for just another hour or so. The atmosphere was calm and friendly, and the Coast Guard officers permitted the Greenpeace crew to order pizza (although they declined offers to share a slice). As darkness fell, the activists remained in custody. The Coast Guard informed the Greenpeace crew that the FBI was now involved and was in the process of interviewing the crew of the APL Jade. Later that evening, Coast Guard officers said that the FBI wanted the Greenpeace team held. Due to the late hour, the group would be taken to a federal prison until Monday morning, when a federal judge would be available for arraignment. The Greenpeace activists spent the weekend in jail.

Incredibly, U.S. authorities failed to seize the mahogany on the Jade. Instead, the ship proceeded from the Port of Miami to Charleston, South Carolina, where, according to documents obtained by Greenpeace, it unloaded 70 tons of mahogany.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace was concerned that, without continued media attention, the ever-mounting political and economic pressure would be too tempting and someone within the Brazilian government would act to quietly make the entire problem go away by somehow declaring all the wood legal. Unbeknownst to Greenpeace, on April 25, 2002, Peter Thomas, Chief CITES Management Authority at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, received a fax from Mr. Randolf Zachow, Mr. Thomas' counterpart in Brazil. Mr. Zachow's letter stated that there had been a terrible misunderstanding and that all wood in U.S. custody should be released.

At 7:00 a.m. EST on May 2, 2002, Greenpeace's Washington, D.C. office received a phone call from a well-placed U.S. government official, informing it of the April 25 fax from Mr. Zachow and that, at 3:00 p.m. the U.S. government was set to release all mahogany shipments held at U.S. ports.

Working across three continents, Greenpeace was able to secure a copy of the fax sent by Mr. Zachow to Mr. Thomas. At 3:00 p.m., the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service issued a short press release declaring that all U.S.-held mahogany was to be released. By 4:00 p.m., Greenpeace campaigners in Belem had faxed a copy of the Zachow letter to IBAMA and the Minister of the Environment in Brasilia, along with a copy of a letter from Greenpeace Amazon campaign coordinator Paulo Adario to Brazilian President Cardoso asking him to act.

By 5:00 p.m. Mr. Zachow had been fired and Greenpeace notified U.S. government officials to expect a new fax from the Brazilian government the following morning, reversing Mr. Zachow's call for release of the seized mahogany. The Brazilian government's fax arrived the following morning, and USDA rescinded its press release and re-seized the impounded cargo.

The second letter send to Mr. Thomas, dated May 22, 2002, stated, "The controls available nowadays at IBAMA do not allow us to state exactly the legality of each particular shipment."

As the summer drew on, Operation Mahogany continued seizing illegally harvested mahogany in Brazil. U.S. officials concluded that, without appropriate assurances from IBAMA, the U.S. could not accept shipments of mahogany. By late July, seven U.S.-based timber product importers sued the U.S. government (Castlewood Products, L.L.C., et al., v. Gale A. Norton, Civ. No. 1:02CV01457 (TPJ)) in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. for release of several shipments of mahogany held in U.S. custody. Greenpeace and several other environmental groups filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief siding with the U.S. government, which refused to release the mahogany. Ultimately the District Court ruled that the mahogany was indeed the property of the U.S. importers but the cargo could not enter the United States.

In November, as the drama continued to unfold the international community gathered in Santiago, Chile, for the Twelfth Conference of the Parties for CITES. With the world's largest mahogany market in Brazil still closed, mahogany was a major topic of discussion. Once again, world governments considered subjecting mahogany to greater control. On the final day, the assembled governments voted to "up list" mahogany to CITES Appendix II, thereby increasing the protection granted under the Convention.

By the end of the summer of 2002, six of the Greenpeace activists arrested during the Miami protest settled the charges against them and were let off with time served and a small fine. However, on July 18, 2003, the Justice Department filed an unprecedented indictment against Greenpeace itself - the first time an organization has been charged for the free speech activities of its members. Greenpeace fought the charges, claiming that it is a victim of selective prosecution because of its effective opposition to the Bush Administration's environmental policies.

Interestingly, in the July 2003 indictment against Greenpeace, the U.S. government asserted that Greenpeace had acted "on the erroneous belief that the 'M/V APL Jade' carried a shipment of Brazilian mahogany lumber." On October 31, 2003, the government revised its indictment, removing any reference to mahogany and the "erroneous belief."

The trial began on May 17th in the Southern District Court in Miami, with Judge Adelberto Jordan presiding. On May 19, 2004, after the prosecution had rested its case, Greenpeace lawyers filed a motion for a judgement of acquittal. After a short deliberation Judge Jordan granted the motion, acquitting Greenpeace of all federal charges.

The Current Status of Mahogany

As of December 2003, Brazil's moratorium on mahogany remains in place and the Brazilian government hold approximately US$60 million dollars' worth of seized illegal mahogany in its possession. The United States has returned two shipments to Brazil, and more are pending. One shipment was re-directed to Taiwan, a country that is not currently a party to the CITES Convention.

Greenpeace continues to work cooperatively with the Brazilian government to establish new mahogany harvesting and enforcement regulations in order for Brazil to be in compliance with CITES.

Greenpeace investigations and protests have a long track record of establishing new domestic and international law. They have played a critical role in stopping atmospheric nuclear testing, protecting Antarctica from exploitation, and banning radioactive waste dumping at sea, to name just a few achievements. The CITES mahogany victory joins this proud list of accomplishments with the species now enjoying greater international protection. The reason that Brazil's historic fight to clean up its mahogany sector is succeeding is due to the obscure fact that mahogany is listed under CITES, an international convention to which the U.S. and most European countries are a party and to the fact that Greenpeace acted. However, for the 99.99% of other commercially traded species gaping holes in the law still exist to protect ancient forests from illegal and destructive logging.

Illegal logging is a global problem. This fact has been recently recognized by a growing number of international efforts, including President Bush's 2003 Presidential Initiative on Illegal Logging. However, the president's initiative utterly fails to address the role of the United States as the major importer of forest products worldwide, instead focusing exclusively on other countries that supply the destructively harvested wood. While the U.S. watches its borders for counterfeit Gucci bags and Rolex watches, no law yet exists to stop importation of most wood illegally harvested in other countries, despite the fact that that wood has been linked to official corruption, slavery, the illicit arms trade and drug trafficking.

While the Greenpeace Forest Campaign has succeeded in securing new international legal protections for mahogany, it is still working to generate sufficient pressure to prod the U.S. into insuring that our market is not fueling the destruction of countless other species. And it is still working for stronger enforcement of the legal restrictions on the mahogany trade. Without addressing the demand side of the problem, President Bush's initiative is doomed to failure.

Updated February 2005