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Logging in the Amazon: What You Can Do

By Ryan George

posted 12/18/01

A rainforest recipe: Take half of all land-based species and place in the largest river basin on earth. Mix thoroughly. Add a dollop of forest devastation and billions of green dollars. Congeal. Sprinkle with an assassination and a dash of death threats. Stir, then stew until boiling.

It's difficult to stomach, but this concoction has long been the state of Brazil's Amazon rainforest. Now, however, Brazilians may have had their fill of this bitter brew.

On December 5, 2001, Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, cancelled all mahogany-logging operations in the country and announced that it would require certification for any future logging near Indian lands or conservation areas. The agency has seized more than one million cubic feet of illegally cut mahogany in 2001--worth roughly $51 million on the open market--according to government officials. The logging shutdown makes permanent an October moratorium, which was based on evidence of rampant illegal logging uncovered by IBAMA and the environmental group Greenpeace.

Greenpeace's evidence is contained in a report called "Partners in Mahogany Crime." Based on three years of research, it details how logging companies harvest rare bigleaf mahogany in Brazil by falsifying authorization papers and razing trees outside their logging allotments. By the time the mahogany is shipped from the Amazon, the report says, "It appears legal, and its illegal origins are untraceable." The wood is then imported into the United States by companies such as DLH Nordisk and Aljoma Lumber, made into furniture, and sold by retailers Ethan Allen and Stickley, among others, the report alleges.

"Furniture, door and window-makers are the major market for this illegal trade, and they are fueling the destruction of the Amazon," says Scott Paul, Greenpeace's forest campaigner. IBAMA estimates that half of all Brazilian mahogany that is exported goes to the United States, while the remainder goes to Europe, according to Roberto Goidanich, environmental attache for the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C. "IBAMA is taking a very courageous step," says Goidanich. "From now on it will be very difficult to sell illegal mahogany."

Mahogany, which can fetch $48 per cubic foot, is highly sought after by loggers, and environmentalists say its extraction is particularly damaging to the rainforest. "Much of the mahogany that's cut in Brazil is old-growth," says Chris Robbins, who wrote a report on the Brazilian mahogany trade for the World Wildlife Fund in October 2000. "Old-growth mahogany is particularly desirable for making furniture, and the United States is far and away the largest market for this wood." The removal of these massive trees leaves roads and trails carved in the rainforest, which are then used to take other trees as well.

One alternative for consumers is to buy mahogany and other wood that's certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which accredits third-party certifiers that follow its standards. "If a consumer buys mahogany furniture that's not certified, the wood has probably been illegally cut down in Brazil," says Jason Grant, director of trade and market development for the Certified Forest Products Council, which lists retailers selling sustainable wood products. "The FSC logo [on the wood] ensures that the forest is well-managed and that the products have been traced from their point of origin." (See "A Shopping Guide to Greener, Healthier Forests," Audubon, January-February 2001.)

In Brazil, most mahogany has been logged in the state of Para, a region marred by recent violence toward those who oppose the logging industry. Ademir Federicci, a leading Brazilian activist who campaigned against illegal logging in the Amazon, was shot and killed in his home on August 25. Before Federicci's death, a wealthy logger in the region had told him to "buy some wood" for his coffin.

Another activist, Paulo Adario, received a death threat on October 2. Five days earlier Adario, who works for Greenpeace in Brazil, had delivered a report to a federal prosecutor showing satellite images of illegal logging operations on land belonging to the Kayapo Indians. He attributes the death threat to that report. He says a soft-spoken woman called his home in Para and told him, "You deserve to die, and you will die." The Brazilian government has provided him with several armed bodyguards. "This is the Wild West, in Para," says Adario. "The power of the government institutions in Brasilia is weak out here, and problems are solved by killing the people that create them." He says many other local activists fear for their lives as well.

Adario and other Greenpeace employees have been working closely with IBAMA during the agency's investigation of the mahogany trade, and they have observed several raids on sawmills, including one on October 31 that employed 3 helicopters, 2 planes, 5 trucks, and 16 environmental police officers, some carrying machine guns. It netted 347 mahogany logs. The reputed owner, Osmar Ferreira, sold bigleaf mahogany in 2000 and 2001 to DLH Nordisk and Inter-Continental Hardwoods, according to the Greenpeace report; they in turn supplied wood to Ethan Allen, Stickley, and Georgia Pacific.

Audubon called the companies accused in the report, but found that none would admit to any wrongdoing. Ethan Allen spokesperson Kelly Maicon says her company does not currently buy mahogany from Brazil, while Georgia Pacific uses "only minute amounts of Brazilian mahogany," according to spokesperson Robin Keagen. "We deal with reputable importers," says Keagen. Stickley president Alfred Audi says, "The Brazilian mahogany we use is bought from lumber suppliers who respect and abide by the environmental legislation of the Brazilian government."

Aljoma Lumber, listed in the report as the United States' largest bigleaf-mahogany importer in 2000, says, "We have no idea of how our wood is harvested," according to vice-president Romel Bezerra. "I know our suppliers comply with all the regulations [in Brazil]." The web site of DLH Nordisk says, "We don't want to be involved in any illegal wood trade. . . . It is important that our suppliers respect the environmental legislation [in Brazil]." Tom Herga, president of Inter-Continental Hardwoods, says half of its mahogany comes from Para but is perfectly legal. "We are not aware of any illegal felling [of mahogany trees]," he says.

That's not enough, says Adario. Ultimately, consumers must demand wood products that are guaranteed to come from sustainable logging sources. The only way to do that, he says, is through a certification system like the Forest Stewardship Council's.

"Most of the timber cut in Brazil goes to the United States," he says. "If U.S. consumers demand that these companies log sustainably and are also responsible for their products, then there can be a future for the Amazon."


© 2001  NASI

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