Strange as it may sound, we have arrived at a moment of hope for the world’s forests. It is, admittedly, hope of a jaded variety: After decades of hand-wringing about rampant destruction of forests almost everywhere, investigators have recently demonstrated in extraordinary detail that much of this logging is blatantly illegal.
And surprisingly, people actually seem to be doing something about it. In November, the European Court of Justice put Poland under threat of a 100,000-euro-per-day fine for illegal logging in the continent’s oldest forest, and early this month Poland’s prime minister fired the environment minister who authorized the logging.
In Romania, two big do-it-yourself retail chains ended purchasing agreements with an Austrian logging giant implicated in illegal logging there. And in this country, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, normally dedicated to free trade at any cost, has barred a major exporter of Peruvian timber from the American market after repeated episodes of illegal shipments.
The recent history of a container ship called the Yacu Kallpa is a good example of the push to stop illegal logging. Along with its predecessors, it ran a regular route for decades from the river town of Iquitos, Peru, to Houston, delivering millions of board feet of stolen timber from the Amazon to unwitting American consumers.
Corrupt government agents and the black market happily provided transport documents to draw a veil of fictitious legality over whatever came floating down the river from the Amazon forest. Or as one exporter shipping timber on the Yacu Kallpa put it to an undercover investigator from the nonprofit Global Witness, “This tree miraculously becomes legal timber, just because of a piece of paper.” Exporters could point to that piece of paper and claim to be merely “buyers in good faith.”
That make-believe mind-set sufficed until Peru’s customs service and its forest watchdog agency, together with investigators from the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, tried to connect export shipments back to their reported harvest sites and found that almost none of the timber came from anyplace legal.
Acting on that information, United States federal agents met the Yacu Kallpa at the dock in Houston in September 2015 and seized 71 shipping containers of timber worth more than $1 million. Investigators would later determine that 92 percent of the timber on that shipment was illegal. The Yacu Kallpa then simply turned around and tried to do it again.
“People are doing these things because they know they can,” said Laura Furones, leader of the Peru campaign at Global Witness. “The level of impunity is astonishing.”
Indeed, on that next and final Yacu Kallpa shipment, 96 percent of the timber was illegal, according to investigators in Peru, putting the Iquitos-to-Houston connection out of business. That was also the basis for the trade representative’s barring of the Peruvian exporter La Oroza. Federal prosecutors in this country and Peru are now conducting criminal investigations against more than 100 people in the Yacu Kallpa case, including American importers that also relied on the “buyer in good faith” fiction.
The last time the Department of Justice prosecuted a major illegal logging case, in 2016, the culprit, Lumber Liquidators, paid a $13.1 million fine. But no company executives have gone to jail for trafficking in stolen timber. And the sort of scrutiny applied in the Lumber Liquidators and the Yacu Kallpa cases is still the rare exception.
So where’s the hope? This may sound naïve, but making the illegality so blatantly obvious ought to drive the timber industry to clean up its own act. Failing that, technology will start to do the job for them. One way to bring the worldwide epidemic of stolen forests under control, according to Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, would be to require timber concession holders to register their trees in a public database. Every logging truck would then have to report by cellphone, before leaving the forest, which trees it is carrying. The ambition is traceability, right through to the finished product in the consumer’s local big box store or lumberyard. It sounds cumbersome, Mr. von Bismarck admits, except when the alternative is a trade made up of more than 90 percent stolen goods.
In fact, such a system already exists in Romania. A simple app called Forest Inspector, released through the Ministry of Environment there, enables users to type in the license plate number of any logging truck on the road and get an immediate answer: This shipment is legal, meaning the cargo is registered with a national database of approved harvest sites. Or it’s illegal, meaning the police can stop it and confiscate both the cargo and the truck.
In the first 10 days after release of the app in 2016, 30,000 people filed reports on logging trucks. Overnight, the number of trucks applying for permits and registering their loads increased by 50 percent. It wasn’t because loggers suddenly started cutting more trees, Mr. von Bismarck said, but because “they felt they were really being watched.”
That feeling will soon intensify, because of recent developments in Earth-orbiting satellites. Early last year, for instance, the high-tech aerospace company Planet completed a constellation of 149 bread-loaf-size satellites, which can now scan every point on Earth several times a week to monitor short-term changes in forest cover.
In Romania, for instance, some logging outfits soon figured out a way to beat the Forest Inspector system, by sending shipping containers into the forest. “They load the raw logs directly into the container and off they go to China, so no one can see on the road that it is a logging truck,” said Micu Bogdan, a consultant to the Romanian Ministry of Environment.
In response, the ministry began to continually scan the entire country with three satellites and superimposed all new logging cuts on a map of legal cuts. A new cut would typically takes weeks to complete, Mr. Bogdan said, and we could “spot an illegal cut in two days.” Mr. von Bismarck and Mr. Bogdan are negotiating agreements to introduce a similar system in Peru.
Even if the means are at hand to protect forests, political will remains a question. In Romania a change in government led to a suspension in satellite monitoring, and in Peru government leaders did not back up their own investigators in the Yacu Kallpa case. Instead, the president at the time, Ollanta Humala, ousted one of the leaders of the investigation.
Peruvian officials also intervened to secure release of the stolen timber in the Yacu Kallpa’s final shipment after Mexican authorities impounded it in January 2016. And this past week, the government approved new road building in pristine regions of the Amazon, potentially endangering three national parks and also several reserves belonging to indigenous people living in voluntary isolation from the outside world.
In this country, the Trump administration does not appear naturally inclined to pursue criminal charges against traffickers in stolen timber. The American timber industry has, however, made it clear that it would welcome such a prosecution. A study by an association of domestic timber producers estimated that competition from illegal imported timber was costing them $1 billion a year — and that was in 2004.
Consumers might also welcome rescue from the lingering suspicion that every time they buy a wood product, from a picture frame to a house, they are unwittingly subsidizing illegal logging. It can happen to any of us.
Ask Donald Trump. According to Mr. von Bismarck, doors manufactured a few years ago with mahogany stolen from a Unesco World Heritage Site in Honduras ended up in Mar-a-Lago.
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and a contributing opinion writer.