Burned area within the Indigenous Land of Cachoeira Seca. 09/22/2013 © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace

The Amazon rainforest is the largest on earth. Its biodiversity is unparalleled, it is crucial to the stability of the global climate, and it is home to many indigenous peoples. But for its immense size and importance, the Amazon is also incredibly vulnerable. In the past three decades alone, human activity has destroyed an area of Brazilian Amazon roughly the size of Germany.

Brazilian authorities have some systems in place, supposedly to help stem the tide of destruction. But a new investigation from Greenpeace Brazil shows just how woefully inadequate the enforcement of these measures are when it comes to stopping illegal logging of Amazon timber.

Loggers in Brazil are not only able to harvest Amazon timber illegally; they have elaborate systems to launder the wood, label it as 'legal', and then send to consumers around the world.

How illegal timber gets to market

Laundering illegal timber is disturbingly easy. By obtaining fraudulent paperwork, companies can bring illegal wood from protected or otherwise critical areas of the Amazon to be processed.

And once the timber leaves the sawmill, it is practically impossible to know for sure whether wood was from legal logging areas, or crucial rainforest.

Logging in Santa Efigênia Forest Management Plan. 03/30/2015 © Fábio Nascimento / Greenpeace

Last year, after months of undercover investigation, Greenpeace Brazil exposed how logging company Agropecuaria Santa Efigenia Ltd a logged, laundered, and sold over $7 million of illegal timber.

The company filed fraudulent paperwork to claim ridiculously high quantities of valuable ipè timber in areas it could legally log. Then it used that documentation to launder illegal wood from other areas of the Amazon.

Now, almost a year later, Brazilian authorities have finally confirmed that Santa Efigenia engaged in large-scale fraud and have imposed sanctions on the company. But it's far too late: the wood it sold has long since been laundered and entered the global market.

Logging Truck in Para State, Brazil. 09/01/2014 © Otávio Almeida / Greenpeace

A global problem

Logging companies like Santa Efigenia that launder Amazon timber rely on anonymity at the global level. In Santa Efigenia's case, 22 sawmills processed the company's wood, which in turn sold to 45 exporters, supplying approximately 150 companies in countries around the world: Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, Mexico, USA, China, Japan, South Korea… the list goes on.

The timber simply becomes impossible to track. And illegal loggers get away with their crimes while consumers unwittingly use wood stolen from the heart of the Amazon.

That's why Greenpeace is calling on companies trading tropical timber to either take the necessary steps to eliminate the risk of illegality, or stop buying and importing Brazilian timber.

But even that is not enough. To truly protect the Amazon rainforest from these crimes, the Brazilian government must reform the governance of the timber industry. It's time authorities fulfill their obligations and enforce existing laws to keep Amazon destruction out of the global market — in Brazil and around the world.

Protest against Illegal Timber in Brazil. 05/15/2014 © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace

Dawn Bickett is a Content Editor for the Americas at Greenpeace USA.