- Alejandra Martin
- BBC World
In a store in the United States, China or Europe, someone buys a beautiful parquet made of fine wood. In the Peruvian jungle, four widows with their children sail downriver for days to denounce the murder of their husbands.
Thousands of kilometers away, both events are faces of a deadly conflict that occurred behind the back of the world in the Peruvian Amazon.
Edwin Chota and three other leaders of the Ashaninka indigenous community were assassinated this month. No one knew of his death until his widows arrived in the city of Pucalpa to alert the authorities.
«The most tragic thing about this case is that it could have been prevented. It was known that Edwin Chota was threatened by illegal loggers and had asked the authorities for protection,» Julia Urrunaga, director in Peru of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told BBC Mundo , a US-based NGO.
Chota was an internationally known leader and had appeared in reports from The New York Times and National Geographic.
In response to the attack, the government appointed a commission to investigate illegal logging along the border with Brazil.
And the president of the Council of Ministers, Ana Jara Velásquez, assured that she will have «all the necessary powers to stop the illegal extraction of wood.» Authorities also announced that a suspect was detained.
But the murder of Chota and his companions reveals, according to an observer, the impunity with which a vast network of illegal logging operates, which in the case of Peru seems to have an epidemic presence.
A 2012 World Bank study estimated that up to 80% of the timber exported by Peru is illegally logged.
And a customs-led operation with support from Interpol this year seized, in just three months, enough illegal timber to fill more than six Olympic-size swimming pools.
Who is behind this business? Where does that wood end?
It is a plot with many levels and protagonists, but in the line of fire are the indigenous communities, like the one led by Chota.
Edwin Chota’s dream
Chota was the elected leader of the Ashaninka people of Saweto, a community near Brazil.
The Ashaninka ethnic group exists on both sides of the border. To get there from Lima you have to fly to Pucalpa and from there sail by river for up to seven days.
David Salisbury, a geographer and professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, United States, knew Chota for more than ten years and came advising his community in their struggle to obtain titles for their lands.
«Edwin was a supercharismatic man with an incredible source of energy. He kept thinking,» Salisbury told BBC Mundo.
«He had only written more than 100 letters to more than 20 institutions in Lima, Pucalpa and Brazil and he was planning to take his fight to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.»
Chota had a vision of having fish farms and developing a model community with alternative sources of income.
But he was also aware of the reality he was facing.
«On the Amazon borders there is a lack of State presence and the one who has the most weapons is the law. But Edwin was not afraid of the loggers, he took photos and marked with GPS the presence of illegal loggers in his community,» Salisbury added.
Workers with their chainsaws are the most visible face of illegal logging.
But «looking for the logger who is cutting the tree is not the solution to the problem,» according to Urrunaga.
«They often work in almost slave-like conditions and they are people who basically do that to survive. The problem here is the mafias behind it.»
«There is the boss who organizes the crew that is going to enter the field, but that person is not really the problem either, behind it there is a much more complex organization. And the objective of this illegal logging is mainly international markets.»
From the employer that sells to sawmills that in turn sell to other intermediaries, the wood is mobilized with apparently legal papers that do not reflect reality.
«What happens is that there is a legal system that works in parallel. The forest concession system is used to launder wood,» Urrunaga told BBC Mundo.
«I go and ask for my concession, all I want is the legal facade. And many times the authority approves the concession without going to the field and then the used papers are to mobilize wood that I extract from another area of the country.»
An entire chain of documents can be based on false inventories.
In his research last year, the New York Times He documented the corruption of local officials.
A former inspector said he was offered thousands of dollars to «turn a blind eye» and expressed frustration at arrests quickly reversed by local judges.
BBC Mundo raised these criticisms with Dr. Fabiola Muñoz, director of the National Forest Service of Peru, SERFOR.
«The first thing I want to say is that I am deeply sorry for the murder of Edwin Chota. We were in a meeting just a couple of months ago in my office with him and David Salisbury and I am deeply sorry for this event,» Muñoz said.
Muñoz said that «the issue of corruption, illegal mining, illegal logging are structural problems that we have to combat and the issue for corruption is zero tolerance.»
«Several years ago, for example, the government made the decision to create Osinfor, an organization that reviews inspections to make sure that the forest is being used sustainably.»
«They are trying to work with the police, the prosecutor’s office specializing in environmental matters, to make a joint effort. It is not easy and it is not just a problem for one institution.»
Muñoz said that another obstacle is the possible one between illegal logging and drug trafficking.
«In general terms, in areas where there is a complaint of illegal logging, drug trafficking routes can also be found in some cases and in other cases areas where coca is planted.
«Many times the illegal loggers together with those who are planting coca or drug traffickers try to create areas that the State cannot enter and covers between them. They are illegal economies.»
Tracking the movement of wood is extremely difficult, according to Urrunaga. Except in the case of protected species, such as cedar and mahogany, which require special documents for export, in general the species is not detailed and some records refer to «wooden boards».
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) tracked the transfer from Peru of 112 shipments of illegal cedar and mahogany timber imported by companies in the US.
The study, published in 2012 and titled «La máquina del lavado», singled out one corporation, the Bozovich Group, with headquarters in the US and branches in Peru and Mexico, among other countries.
Seventy of the 112 shipments tracked came from the corporation’s Peruvian branch, Maderera Bozovich.
In a statement issued in 2012, the corporation’s president, Drago Bozovich, responded: «The EIA report unfairly portrays our company as complicit in illegal conduct.»
«At every step, official agencies and officials review and certify the legality of the production. As a company we must rely on that system in our purchases. If there is fraud or criminal conduct on the ground, we have been just as deceived as the official officials.»
BBC Mundo once again raised the EIA’s accusations against the Bozovich group.
The company responded: «We at Bozovich apply strict screening to our suppliers and strong due diligence measures on all our purchases.»
Not only the United States or Europe are destinations for illegal shipments.
It has also been denounced that, for example, the wood of a tree called Shiwawako is specially felled for China, where it is used in the manufacture of parquet.
Sometimes wood from Peru can be «intermediated» so that it reaches Europe or the US via Mexico or other countries, and does not appear as imports from Peruvian territory, according to Urrunaga.
What measures can be taken?
“The first measure that can be taken immediately is to sanction the people who are already known to have been authorizing the movement of illegal timber,” Urrunaga said.
«We provided the State with that information, which was based on official data. It is as easy as seeing which foresters signed the false inventories, and opening administrative and criminal proceedings against them. That has not happened.»
BBC Mundo asked Dr. Muñoz why.
«We are effectively in talks with the college of forestry engineers of Peru because it is important to penalize the engineers,» said the director of SERFOR.
«The administrative-type sanction that we can impose as an authority is a fine or suspending the activity of that forestry engineer, but that is not enough, if he has falsified information he has to go to jail, and we are working on that with the specialized prosecutor’s office on matters environmental».
Muñoz described illegal logging as a «monster» that requires actions from many actors, including the governments of importing countries and consumers who must demand more information about the products they purchase.
«Where is the State?»
Beyond the actions that can be taken, the reality continues to be dramatic for the communities.
Salisbury says that «there is still a community there surrounded by loggers, there are people in fear who are imprisoned in their community because the loggers are talking on the radio and they say they want to wipe out the border community in one fell swoop.»
The abandonment of communities like Edwin Chota’s is an urgent debt of the government, according to Urrunaga.
«Where was the State? Why do the members of the indigenous community have to be the ones who have to deal with the mafias when that is the role of the State?»
«Many other communities deal with this day by day. It is true that there are officials who are trying to do something, but as long as it is not a decision of the head, of the cabinet, this is not going to change.»