Logging in the Amazon

Background - 21 November, 2005
Illegal and predatory logging plays a central role in the destruction of the Amazon. It is now generally accepted that illegal logging is the norm, rather than the exception in the Brazilian Amazon. Between 60 and 80 percent of all logging in the Brazilian Amazon is estimated to be illegal.

Hundreds of illegal mahogany logs hidden under the forest canopy exposed by Greenpeace and Brazilian government officials.

With the depletion of forests in Southeast Asia and central Africa, the Amazon is being targeted by domestic and transnational corporations as a key source for tropical timber products. Huge majestic trees like the Samauma, also known as the "Queen of the Forest", are being exploitedto make cheap plywood for construction industries in the US, Japan and Europe.

Working in remote forest areas, the loggers often use false permits, ignore limitations of legal permits, cut species protected by law and steal from protected areas and indigenous lands. These are often small or medium scale operations that are able to avoid detection because of the remoteness of the logging locations, the weak presence of the federal environmental agency IBAMA, and a complex chain-of-custody in the cutting, hauling and transporting of the logs.

Legally approved forest operations in the Brazilian Amazon commonly provide cover for illegal logging. Logs are frequently cut illegally up river from approved operations and clandestinely floated downstream. Once past an approved operation, they are "legalised" with forged documents claiming that the logs were cut on the property of the forestry operation.

Since Greenpeace set up an office in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon in 1999, we have seen a steady stream of these illegal rafts heading downstream. Greenpeace has worked with local communitiesand IBAMA, tracking illegal activity, mapping logging areas, investigating companies and taking direct action against companies within Brazil and in the international market place.

Using a small Cessna airplane for surveillance, Greenpeace has been able to locate massive illegal log rafts and report these to the government authorities. We have developed a technique to track illegal logs back to the exporting companies using ultraviolet paint. And we have researched the origin and destinations of tens of thousands of cubic metres of timber. Greenpeace has also completed a map with all the "legal" forest operations, a powerful tool to be used by local authorities for monitoring. All of this research points to an illegal logging industry out of control.

These are just the examples of the illegal activity that are known. The volume of illegal logs discovered would be much higher if IBAMA's inspection structure were stronger. In Amazonas state, the largest IBAMA team in the Amazon basin currently relies on only one inspector per four million hectares, an area the site of Switzerland. Today, IBAMA estimates it can only identify 10 percent of all logging activities in the Brazilian Amazon.

Greenpeace also discovered that one transnational logging giant, WTK, purchased 313,000 hectares of land from a private landowner, 150,000 hectares of this illegally overlapped with indigenous territory. The Deni who live in this region began the physical demarcation of their territory in 2001 to guarantee that WTK and others will be prohibited from logging on their land. This is now completed and they are recognised under Brazilian law as the legal owners oftheir lands.

There are vast areas of the Amazon rainforest still intact. However, there are now 7,595 companies registered in the Brazilian Amazon and deforestation rates are growing at an alarming rate. This region that supplied 12 percent of the Brazilian log production in 1970, now produces some 30 million cubic meters of logs a year, or 90 percent of Brazil's total tropical timber production.

According to official data, Amazon deforestation grew from one to 15 percent in that same period and these trends are expected to continue. Predatory 'selective' logging affects areas almost the same size asthose clearcut annually, but its impact is not included in official deforestation figures.

Selective extraction of valuable trees can directly change the forest structure and its species composition, as in most cases, other trees are destroyed in the process. According to scientists, Amazon logging companies extract or damage 10 to 40 percent of the live biomass of a forest area, and open up the canopy by 14 to 50 percent.The reduced canopy cover can also make the forests more vulnerable toforest fires. The indirect consequences of offsetting the cost of roadbuilding and forest clearance opens up the forest to further destructive activities including large-scale hunting, fuel woodgathering and clearing for agriculture.

Despite the high rate of illegal logging, important timber importing nations such as the US, UK, Spain, France and Japan have taken few, if any, steps to ensure that products they import come from legal, let alone ecologically well-managed sources. In practice, the only way to ensure that wood and woodproducts in the Amazon come from legal and well-managed sources is to demand that all such products have been independently certified to at least the standards adopted by the Forest Stewardship Council™.