The Amazon rainforest was supposed to have been saved from illegal loggers. But now the timber criminals are back - and it's causing major problems for companies like Jewson that are trading in wood from Brazil.
The Brazilian government spent the first few years of the twenty-first century raiding sawmills and logging camps deep in the jungle. Forced into action by international outrage, it seized contraband timber worth millions of pounds, and put systems in place to regulate the logging industry. For the first time, Brazil could track timber products from the forests where the trees were logged to the docks where they were exported.
Deforestation rates peaked in 2004 and fell steadily for almost ten years.
But the loggers didn't go away. They just got smarter. Despite the government's interventions, most of the logging in the Brazilian Amazon was still illegal. The loggers learned how to game the systems put in place to keep illegal timber out of the market. They found crooked sawmills to launder their illegal timber, and exporters that didn't care where their products they sold came from.
Illegal timber, accompanied by fraudulently-obtained official papers, could now be sold to unsuspecting customers overseas.
The scale of illegal logging in the Amazon is astounding. In the state of Pará, almost 80% of logging is believed to be illegal. The former head of the Brazilian forestry service, Antonio Carlos Hummel, says that well over half of all logging in the Amazon is illegal. Half of Pará's timber exports go to European countries, and two-thirds of timber from the Amazon goes to Europe and the US.
Unsurprisingly, forest destruction is getting worse once again; last year, deforestation in the Amazon increased by 28%.
With so much illegal logging - and fake papers readily bought and sold on the black market - companies that sell timber from Brazil without double-checking where it came from are taking a massive risk. This may seem somewhat abstract, so here's a cautionary tale of what happens when companies don't do their homework.
Last week, Greenpeace published a report into illegal logging and warned companies to take special care when buying timber from the Amazon. We also pointed out that the DIY chain Jewson was selling garden decking made from ipe, a hardwood tree from the Amazon rainforest.
Ipe makes great decking: it's beautiful and incredibly durable. For this reason it's used to make boardwalks and marine defences, and as flooring in public buildings and corporate headquarters all around the world. But it's also very rare, which makes it expensive. This makes it extremely desirable to the criminal logging gangs operating in the Amazon.
Jewson responded robustly. It knew exactly where the ipe it was selling came from. Two Brazilian timber exporters, Solimad Madeiras and Condor Florestas Industrial Madeiras, had provided all the right paperwork. They could show that the timber had been legally logged and cleared for export by the relevant authorities. Everything was in order. Jewson and its customers had nothing to worry about.
But a quick internet search suggests otherwise.
Like many players in the Brazilian logging industry, Jewson's Brazilian suppliers have been convicted for illegal logging. Several times, in fact. Solimad Madeiras had been caught on six separate occasions in possession of illegal timber; on two instances, it had stockpiled over 1,500 cubic metres of lumber with no papers or proof of origin. In 2011, Condor Florestas had illegally cleared over 1,000 hectares of rainforest. It was fined over R$5 million (£1,200,000) and banned from the region.
Of course, this doesn't means that the ipe decking Jewson bought from Condor Florestas and Solimad Madeiras is illegal. They may have seen the error of their ways and put illegal logging behind them. But you'd be a bit suspicious, especially as Solimad Madeiras also has three separate convictions, twice in 2009 and once in 2012, for selling or transporting timber with counterfeit documents. Those are the same type of paperwork given to Jewson's parent company, International Timber, to prove the timber it had bought was legal. The same paperwork their salesman told us was "not worth much more than what it's written on."
Between them, Jewson's suppliers in Brazil have been fined over £2 million in the last ten years for illegal logging and timber laundering. These are not the sort of companies you can trust, especially if it involved an expensive timber species from such a troubled region.
Jewson should have known better, but in truth, this story isn't unusual. This is just what the Amazon timber industry is like. It's hard to find anyone who hasn't had a run in with the authorities at some point, let alone a sawmill or exporter that hasn't at some time processed some suspect timber - whether they knew it at the time or not. Which is why timber traders and anyone looking to buy Amazon timber need to make absolutely certain that what they have is legal, or make do with another species from a safer part of the world.
The Brazilian authorities are belatedly taking action to try and stem the tide. The Federal Prosecutor has brought three separate lawsuits against the state of Pará since the start of the year, in an attempt to force the state government to act. IBAMA, the environmental police, are raiding logging camps and sawmills once again. But these are piecemeal operations; the loggers slink back into the jungle, regroup, and carry on as before once the federales have departed.
Illegal logging in the Amazon can only be stamped out by root-and-branch reform. That will not be easy, especially with a strong logging and agribusiness lobby at the heart of President Dilma Rouiseff's government. In the meantime we hope Jewson will clean up its act and not rely on dodgy paperwork.
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