To learn about the illegal wood trade and its impact on local communities, photographer Fellipe Abreu spent 75 days in the Brazil-Peru border region, where the Javari River forms a natural frontier between the countries, visiting indigenous communities, coca plantations, and a logging site in the middle of the jungle.
His name is Francisco.* He was my guide and the director of the logging camp. The camp was located approximately two hours by boat from the Brazilian military base in Estirão do Equador but was on the Peruvian side of the border, near the edge of the Esperanza stream. Francisco explained that “in most of the Peruvian Amazon, there are logging concessions, but not here. Even with a concession it is prohibited to work with wood here, because it is a legally protected area.”
He said that this did not, however, hinder such work, because there were no inspections — even though the Peruvian National Police were aware of everything the loggers did.
“When we started to work here in this camp, the police from the Carolina Base — located on the Yavari Mirim River — came to see me to charge a fee. We agreed that at the end of the season I would pay them 1,000 soles [about $358]. And that is how it works: if you give them the puntita (bribe), nothing will happen to you.”
I spent three days in Mr. Francisco’s community, with the objective of being present for the felling of a cedar. On the morning of the second day, at the first light of day, Francisco told me that his son was going to cut down a cedar and that I was permitted to accompany him. After an approximately 30 minute walk, there he was. Daniel, Francisco’s son, stood looking at the tree with a chainsaw in his hands. He said he had to pay attention to which was the heaviest branch and calculate the slope of the tree, to know which side to cut the cedar on so that the trunk would fall straight.
He turned on the chainsaw and began to make triangular cuts in the base of the cedar to gradually weaken the tree. When we heard the trunk snap, we ran backwards. A few seconds later, the hundred-year-old tree fell to the forest floor, carrying with it other small trees, in a symphony of cracking trunks that lasted about three seconds.
Daniel cut the wood into four logs of four meters in length and the six men who were present cleared the path that would be used to carry the logs to the nearest stream, which was located about 300 meters away.
After a cigarette and a few minutes’ rest, they began the final and most tiring stage. Five men pushed the logs, one by one, through the forest, while the other — called the “palanqueador” — gave directions, controlling the speed and movement of the wood with the help of a wooden pole.
Once they reached the edge of the dry creek, the logs were left to await the next heavy rain, which would make the stream overflow, bringing the logs downstream to where it flowed into a lake connected to the Javari River. Those four logs would be combined with the other 380 that had been cut down, which would shortly be brought together with an even bigger load of wood on its way down the river.
The person taking this large load down the Javari was Antonio.* I had met him a few days earlier in Nueva Esperanza — a Peruvian community located on the banks of the Yavari Mirim River, which is a tributary of the Javari. The settlement emerged after the logging boom, which led to the emergence of a number of small communities in the region. All of the approximately 300 people living there are either loggers, relatives of the loggers, or salesmen who depend on the logging money. And many are all of these things together.
Today, Peru is one of the two biggest exporters of hardwood in South America, and according to specialists this activity has been occurring in the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. It was during the 1960s that the provinces of Cusco and Ucayali emerged as major logging regions, but just as with the coca crops, logging activities greatly expanded through the Amazon region in the 1980s and 1990s — especially in the provinces of Madre de Dios and Loreto — as loggers searched for unexplored terrains rich in hardwoods. This migration of logging activity to the Amazon led to the discovery of new areas rich in mahogany and cedar, and encroached on a large number of peasant and indigenous communities, who to this day have to live with the problem of illegal logging and the near-total failure of the Peruvian state to monitor it.
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Some studies indicate that around 80 percent of wood extracted from Peru is logged illegally. This number could, at first glance, seem absurd, since logging is legal in many concession areas in Peru. However, even the National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA), which is responsible both for granting concessions and monitoring logging activity, admits that illegal logging occurs, although their estimates vary between 30 percent and 40 percent of total logging activity.
According to the report “Forced labor in the extraction of wood in the Peruvian Amazon,” written by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “The approximate number of people affected by forced labor is thought to be around 33,000, the majority of them belonging to various ethnic groups from the Peruvian Amazon.” Moreover, the ILO said that information they collected for the report indicated that in many cases timber extraction is linked with the laundering of drug money.
Presenting myself as a wildlife photographer, I stayed a week in Nueva Esperanza hoping to accompany the work taking place in a logging camp there. That is where I met Antonio, who works as an enabler in the region. At one point, he was a logger, but now he is the patron — the person who invests the money and finances a number of logging camps. During the rainy season, when all of the trees for all of the camps that he finances have been cut down and properly deposited on the banks of the Javari, he comes by, attaches everything to his convoy, and settles accounts with the loggers he employs. In this case, it was Mr. Fernando.
With the town completely composed of loggers, it is not difficult to find out how the business works in the region. At lunch, in the bar, or during late afternoon soccer, the subject is nearly always the same: wood. I never had to ask anything. After a while, the misgivings they had about me passed, and I began to have a good relationship with some of them. “Wherever there is legal extraction, there is also illegal extraction. Here in Nueva Esperanza, there are between six and 10 concessions. The problem is that all of these [legal] areas have been under exploration for more than 10 years. The wood ran out a while ago. When that happens, we have to look for new areas rich in hardwood to explore,” said Alejandro, one of the loggers that works for Antonio, as we ate breakfast together.
All timber extraction in Peru, to be considered legal, must be performed within the areas authorized for this activity — the so-called INRENA forest concessions. All wood taken from these areas must be registered in two documents: the “Guide to Forest Transportation” (GTF) and the “Cubage Sheet” (HC), both provided by the same institution. However, the nearly complete absence of the INRENA in the region opens a large space for illegal activity.
Loggers that don’t have forest concessions buy the documents provided by INRENA (the GTF and the HC) from other loggers, illegally log the wood and later falsify the documents to look as though the logs were taken from the legal concession belonging to the logger who sold them the documents. Meanwhile, loggers who have a legal forest concession for a certain area extract timber outside the limits of these areas and alter their own GTF and HC documents to look as though the timber was taken from within the concession, Alejandro told me. This process of making the wood appear legal is known in the region as “timber laundering.”
He also told me that “there are people who have concessions who have never felled a single tree within their areas. They work selling the INRENA documents to other loggers that need to launder their wood.” Alejandro added that “there are a lot of people that do that, not just here, but in all of the places where I have worked in the Amazon. There is no oversight.”
INRENA has not carried out studies to determine the quantity of wood with a commercial value that exists within a given area, in order to impose guidelines for that concession. As the timber gets used up, the documents to register it continue to be issued, meaning that the owner can continue exploring other areas and laundering wood, or sell the documents.
Another problem is the reports of timber extracted on the Brazilian side, which is later laundered as though it had come from Peru. According to Gustavo Pivoto, the Federal Police Commissioner in Tabatinga, the biggest Brazilian city in the area, “in the dry season, a logger might enter the Brazilian side and spend months extracting wood. When the rains come, the streams engorge and the logs can be brought down the Javari — which is an international river — and then be registered as Peruvian. Most of the time we don’t have a way to prove where the wood came from. In this type of operation, we need more ongoing support from IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], which is currently about to close its doors in Tabatinga. We do not need IBAMA to increase its presence in Brasilia, we need IBAMA to be here, monitoring the environment.”
I asked Mr. Francisco about his plans for next year. He replied: “People who live here in the region already know more or less where they will find good wood, so when one season ends, they have already started thinking about the next one. We make a map of some areas to know how much hardwood there is in each of them, we choose the best and build a camp there.”
Timber Extraction on Indigenous Lands
In many cases, the extraction of timber occurs on indigenous lands. The border region between the states of Acre and Amazonas (Brazil) and Loreto and Ucayali (Peru) contains a large number of Indigenous Land Conservation Units, where indigenous and traditional populations live, and the area is considered the region with the greatest population of isolated indigenous communities in the Amazon.
In Brazil, the indigenous right to land was secured by the 1988 constitution, which established that indigenous communities are the first and natural owners and have the right to a certain quantity of formally recognized independent land. Despite the law established in the constitution, in reality the lands where these communities live are constantly invaded by various activities, including mining, timber extraction and drug trafficking. And that is not to mention all of the other factors that have a direct impact on their territory — indigenous communities can also suffer the consequences of activities occurring outside the limits of their land, such as deforestation to clear land for coca cultivation, timber extraction and hydrocarbon exploration.
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Officially, Paulo* is an employee with the Atalaia do Norte city hall and works in the Palmeiras do Javari school, but since the line between legal and illegal is very thin here, he also performs other jobs to supplement his income. In addition to receiving a few days off each week from school to hunt wild animals — which is prohibited in the region — he also works sporadically as a logger.
I accompanied Paulo on a journey to the Soledad stream, located within the limits of the Fray Pedro indigenous community, in Peru, where in just one trip he was planning to cut down two trees and spend three days hunting. For hunting, he contracts members of the indigenous communities, giving them shotgun cartridges and salt for the meat, and lays traps at various points in the jungle, as well as spending the nights searching for animals.
After we arrived, we went straight to find the trees that were to be cut down. “This is the louro pixuri. I’ve been looking for a wood like this for a while to make a canoe with. This will last for about 20 years in direct contact with the water,” said Paulo.
According to Paulo, the fact that we are in an indigenous area is not dangerous. “Not as long as you’re with me; here everybody knows me,” he said proudly, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. “I’ve already extracted a lot of wood from indigenous land. Not in Brazil, but on the Peruvian side I’ve taken a bit of everything. Why run the risk of taking wood from Brazil if we can cross the river and get here without any risk at all?”
Paulo said that, when a logger is interested in taking wood from indigenous lands, he should speak with the chief, who generally will organize a meeting with the leaders of the community to discuss the proposal and consider a deal. “Here in Fray Pedro, I have already taken 30 cedar logs in exchange for a day’s work for the chief,” said Paulo, who concluded by saying that various types of tradeoffs exist.
In the Tupi II community — of the Tikuna ethnicity — he took 400 cedar logs and gave 10 percent of the profits to the community, while in another Tikuna community — which he did not wish to name — he took 90 cedar logs and in exchange the chief requested that he install electrical wiring for the community.
*Indicates a name has been changed.
**Fellipe Abreu is a film journalist who works as a freelance reporter and photographer in Sao Paulo, Brazil.