When the trade deal between the United States and Peru went into effect in 2009, proponents touted it as a shining example of environmental good sense. It was the first time the main text of any trade deal included detailed protections for the environment and for labor. That mattered — and still matters — both as a model for other trade deals and also because the environment ostensibly being protected includes a large chunk of the Amazon rain forest.
As part of the deal’s Forest Sector Annex, the United States provided $90 million in technical assistance to beef up enforcement by Peru’s forest service and to create an electronic system intended to track every log from stump to export. (That system does not appear to be working so far, because of software issues, according to rumors.) Peru in turn agreed, among other things, to ensure the independent status of its forest watchdog agency, called Osinfor, which sends its agents into the field to check that loggers have actually harvested the trees reported in their export documents. (That system works all too well, repeatedly demonstrating that logging companies lie.) On passage, then-Senator Max Baucus assured skeptics that enforcement of the treaty’s added provision would “have real teeth.”
Sadly, the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement is now slouching toward its 10th anniversary on Feb. 1 in shambles, brought on this time by the Peruvian government’s latest attempt to hobble, cripple or otherwise rid itself of this meddlesome Osinfor.
From the start, the Peru deal has served as a cover for almost laughably rampant illegal logging. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit group, laid out detailed evidence in 2012 that Peru’s timber industry was a “laundering machine,” mass-producing “legal” paperwork for stolen timber. Stolen, that is, from national parks, protected areas and the lands of indigenous communities, whose leaders risked assassination if they resisted. So not laughable, after all, especially since much of the stolen timber has routinely been making its way from the Amazon port of Iquitos to American lumber yards and D.I.Y. stores.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which has traditionally focused on promoting trade, has been toothless in response. It waited until 2016 to ask the Peruvian government to verify the legality of a timber shipment — and even then, did so only after the Department of Homeland Security, acting on information from Osinfor, had already impounded the timber in Houston. It was the first time the U.S.T.R. had ever issued an environmental verification request in any trade deal. When Osinfor inspectors subsequently demonstrated that 93 percent of the impounded timber was illegal, the U.S.T.R. responded by suspending a single Peruvian timber exporter from the United States market for up to three years. Peru’s response was to fire the head of Osinfor, who fled the country after death threats and a firebombing of one of Osinfor’s regional offices.
The Peruvian government, which rates a 37 out of 100 on the Transparency International scale of perceived corruption (with 100 being “very clean”), has been maneuvering ever since to bring Osinfor under its thumb. In mid-December, when many people were distracted by pre-Christmas doings, the government’s council of ministers decided on short notice and without consulting the affected agencies to bury Osinfor within the environmental ministry.
Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts, as incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, fired off a letter to the U.S.T.R., angrily protesting this “brazen, bad faith decision” as “a flagrant attack on the heart of the forestry annex.” The surprise came when the trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, appointed by a Trump administration that is otherwise outspokenly contemptuous of environmental concerns, wrote back just two days later, “in complete agreement with you and your colleagues that this development is unacceptable.”
One possible explanation is that the U.S.T.R. has finally become fed up after 10 years of being lied to and laughed off by Peru. Also possible: Mr. Lighthizer may simply be making a show of force on past environmental commitments to help ease the revised Nafta treaty — the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — through forthcoming congressional hearings. (Happily for the U.S.T.R., the environmental provisions of the unpronounceable U.S.M.C.A. are largely too weak to require much enforcement.)
For now, Mr. Lighthizer has “requested consultations with Peru under the Environment Chapter” of the trade agreement, another first for the U.S.T.R., with the possibility of sanctions still ahead. In Lima, government ministers are taking a this-too-will-pass attitude.
It should not pass. Tolerating stolen timber imports costs the jobs of thousands of Americans in the legal timber industry. It lends an eager hand to deforestation even as an intact Amazon forest is increasingly seen as a critical factor in fighting climate change. It implicates everyone who buys or sells lumber, or who lives in a wood house, in a global pattern of corruption, murder and devastation. And it turns all trade agreements into thinly veiled invitations to crime.
If in fact the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has overcome its teething pains, that’s good news. Now when trade partners prove false, it should learn how to bite.
Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and a contributing opinion writer.