Once untouched forest is now feeling the predatory hands of timber traffickers in the Amazon’s two tri-border regions. 

Illegal loggers have begun to migrate to Brazil’s northern Amazon. According to a 2019 study that looked at illegal logging in the Anauá National Forest, loggers and sawmills are relocating from the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Pará, and Rondônia to Roraima, on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The region has come to be seen as a “new gold woodland,” thanks to the large swaths of forest, low cost of land, and few controls on deforestation and logging, the study authors wrote.

*This article is part of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute on illegal mining, timber trafficking, and drug trafficking in the triple border areas between Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela. Read the other chapters here or download the full PDF.

Illegal timber harvesting in the tri-border regions is most prevalent in the Amazon forests of Peru, where a multinational operation with many tentacles targets high-value hardwood species, such as spruce (Virola calophylla), tornillo (Cedrelinga catenaeformis), and cedar (Cedrela odorata). Trees are felled, transformed into planks, and eventually exported. The process includes legitimizing the timber through logging and transport permits, sawmills, and brokers before shipping it to regional capitals like Bogotá and Lima, or to international markets such as China.

A Tri-Border Town Built on Timber

Nestled on a bend of the Yavarí River near the Colombia and Brazil borders, Peru’s Islandia sits on an ideal corner for receiving boatloads of wood.

“In Islandia there are giant sawmills,” said a member of the Indigenous Fray Pedro community in Peru. “The loggers in the area take a lot of wood to Islandia to process it there.”

Determining the origin of this freshly processed timber is difficult. The sawmills use multiple means to camouflage their illegal activities, including falsifying the registries of wood entering and leaving their facilities.

SEE ALSO: Fueling Forest Loss: Motors of Deforestation in the Amazon

Some of the timber processed in Islandia is brought to Colombia’s Leticia, just 45 minutes upriver by boat. The shipments are small — valued at less than $1,000 apiece — to avoid incurring import duties. According to a 2019 report by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an organization dedicated to the study of environmental crime, some 250 families in the nearby Colombian town of Puerto Nariño are buying wood from Islandia sawmills.

Wood imports must be authorized by Colombia’s National Authority of Environmental Licenses (Autoridad Nacional de Licencias Ambientales – ANLA) to ensure the wood is of legal provenance. The EIA investigation, however, found that ANLA had not authorized any wood imports to Leticia between 2015 and 2019, despite nearly 10,000 cubic meters of wood planks arriving there during that period. The small timber shipments may not just be to avoid taxes but also ANLA controls. Much of the wood imported to Colombia is not declared at all, according to the EIA report.

A 2012 World Bank report found that about 80% of Peru’s timber was illegally extracted. Rolando Navarro, the former director of Peru’s Supervisory Agency for Forest Resources and Wildlife (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales y de Fauna Silvestre – Osinfor), the entity that oversees and controls forestry and wildlife use, confirmed that this is still the case.

Timber ‘Patrones’ Exploit Indigenous Communities

Timber patrones, or bosses, have targeted Indigenous communities in Peru for their ability to seek permits and concessions to extract timber on their lands. The patrones promise jobs and earnings for the communities but often deliver only exploitation. 

In Peru, timber is harvested under the protection of environmental authorities through forestry concessions and logging permits. Annual Operating Plans (Planes Operativos Anuales – POAs) are supposed to serve as controls, but end up providing cover for illegally logged timber, as information in these plans can be falsified and often goes unverified.

SEE ALSO: Corruption at Every Level: Who Profits from Destruction of Peru’s Amazon

A Peruvian forestry expert, who spoke anonymously for security reasons, said that Matsés Indigenous communities in Loreto ended up regretting agreements to do business with an alleged timber patron, Teodulfo Palomino Ludeña.

In 2013, Palomino approached the Matsés Indigenous community of Fray Pedro, which sits near the border of Brazil, representing himself as someone in the timber trade and offering work and economic support, including helping youth gain access to higher education, said a Fray Pedro community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

The Fray Pedro community agreed to negotiate with Palomino. In November 2013, the community signed an “exclusive supply and commercialization contract” with him and his company Lanc Forest SAC, which allowed it to actively log in the community’s territory, according to documents from the Loreto prosecutor’s office.

In 2019, suspicions emerged about Palomino when Osinfor agents came to inspect management plans and Palomino became nervous. “We didn’t understand why he was getting tense if he was supposed to be doing everything right,” said the Fray Pedro community member. “And he asked us not to let Osinfor come in to inspect.”

Palomino was concerned about standing trees that should have been cut down, said another Fray Pedro community member. The trees were recorded as extracted on the forestry management plan, which meant the trees that were harvested must have come from somewhere else, the community member said. Seeing the trees still standing, Osinfor inspectors would suspect inconsistencies in the information being provided on the forestry management plan.

Soon afterward, community leaders became aware of a long list of irregularities, including alleged harvesting of excess volumes of timber, and using the community’s management plan to launder timber that had been extracted illegally.

Palomino also allegedly doctored the community’s ledgers, forging the signatures of its leaders on deeds.

“Palomino wanted to take more than 80,000 hectares of land from us and said that we were supposedly donating the territory to him,” added the community member.

The community reported that the deed book had gone missing.

Palomino, whom InSight Crime could not reach for comment, no longer extracts timber in Fray Pedro territory, but the community continues to suffer the consequences of his actions. Forestry authorities fined them almost 200,000 soles (about $50,000) for violations. The community’s logging permit and the approval of other management plans in the territory were suspended.

Illegal Wood Laundered in Peru’s Amazon Capital

The main clients of Islandia’s sawmills are in Peru’s Iquitos, the capital of the massive Amazon department of Loreto. Iquitos is a major transit and processing hub for wood, and timber brokers there are notorious for laundering illegal wood.

For example, Peru prosecutors have accused Elizabeth Lazares de La Cruz, the head of an Iquitos-based timber company, of being involved in a massive trafficking network known as “Los Duros del Amazonas,” or the “Toughs of the Amazon.”

According to court files reviewed by Ojo Público, Lazares de La Cruz is alleged to have used the company to launder illegally sourced timber from the Peruvian Amazon, including from the border department of Loreto.

Navarro, the former Osinfor director, called Lazares a broker and said she had contacts in the regional government of Loreto and local sawmills. Lazares also had the documents needed to make illegal timber appear legal, and then sell the laundered timber on to connections in Lima and abroad.

“She checks the product in the field and makes sure to fulfill the requests of companies,” said Navarro. “She is doing the grunt work and she is the person who is getting her shoes dirty.”