Down the logging road


Judith Westveer

Scientific Journalist

I am a creative academic who likes to tell stories about nature, and the Amazon rainforest is my biggest source of inspiration. After finishing a PhD in Conservation Ecology, during which I studied ways to protect and restore wetlands, I worked for several Peruvian environmental NGO's. Currently, I'm focused on creating awareness on the importance of nature.

Learn more about Judith Westveer

July 25, 2022

Down the logging road


As a novice conservation ecologist I had the adventurous task of monitoring wildlife populations in the Peruvian Amazon. My perspiring students and I would walk in a straight line through pristine rainforest, holding a GPS, binoculars and a datasheet, to record any monkey, jaguar or rat that we encountered. We had research permits to do this and were walking on state-owned or private properties that were designated as nature reserves. More than once, we would be clawing through a dark dense jungle, feeling completely absorbed by the all-encompassing forest, and then suddenly…we would step into a void of bright light.

A massive gap in the canopy, remains of sawdust around several large tree stumps, the forest transformed into an open space with red mud and tire tracks. The space that is created by felling trees and cutting the logs had, without exception, entry/exit routes that were large enough for a big truck. Arriving at an ecological crime scene like this always put a massive damper on our moods. Apparently, not even a protected area is really protected.

How can such an invasive process go unnoticed and unstopped? As I go down the so-called rabbit hole, or perhaps more suitable in this case: down the logging road, trying to find out what goes on in this dark world of illegal logging, things get really dirty, real fast. Corruption, violence and even murder are part of this industry while the environment takes a beating too.

How dire is the illegal logging situation in Peru?

Peru is the fourth-largest rainforest country in the world, and from 2002 to 2020 alone, 2.19 million hectares (3%) of its primary rainforest was lost. Besides felling essential habitat for wildlife, this forest loss accounts for 2.17 Gigatons of CO₂ emissions. Most forest was lost in the northeastern province of Loreto, one of the biggest provinces in the country that lies entirely within the Amazon basin. Madre de Dios’ rainforest, southeastern Peru, decreased by 2.6% in this time period, which is a little bit lower than the average country-wide deforestation rate.

Deforestation has increased rapidly from the year 2012 onward. Recently, 2017 and 2020 were peak years in terms of tree cover loss, which is driven mainly by agricultural expansion, forestry purposes, wildfires and illegal logging. 

Already in 2012, estimates were that 80% of all of Peru’s timber exports was logged illegally. While a lot of wood is used locally in gold mines and construction work, the majority of it goes to China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States as parquet flooring, boards and planks, and carpentry items. 

Already in 2012, estimates were that 80% of all of Peru’s timber exports was logged illegally. While a lot of wood is used locally in gold mines and construction work, the majority of it goes to China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States as parquet flooring, boards and planks, and carpentry items. 

Based on a Peruvian Timber Trade Discrepancy Analysis by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the timber trade in Peru is a lucrative yet obscure industry, with exports peaking at USD 210 million in the year 2008. During the most recently analyzed timber boom (2016-2019), export revenue was around USD 120 million per year. It’s hard to track exactly how many jobs that amount of revenue created, but in some towns in Madre de Dios, the majority of the population is involved in some part of the logging process

The WWF also identified financial crimes and corruption (tax evasion, fraud, money laundering) to potentially be related to the accelerating deforestation. Their analysis suggests that the relative ease of committing these crimes is a contributing factor facilitating illicit timber in Peru.

But it doesn’t stop at corruption. In 2019, two timber executives and three loggers were charged with the murder of four Indigenous community members, including a prominent anti-logging campaigner, named Edwin Chota, who tried to protect his forest near the Peruvian frontier with Brazil. ‘Welcome to the land without law. The only law here is the law of the gun.’ – was a quote from Chota, talking to a journalist in 2011 about the forest he lived in.

In fact, the 2021 Global Witness report on environmental crimes estimated that since the Paris Agreement in 2015, an average of four environmentalists are killed per week. Logging was the industry linked to the most murders – with the majority of attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines. 

These numbers make my head spin and I wonder how such a big, yet obviously illegal, industry seems to thrive effortlessly.

How can the transport of massive trees go unnoticed?

The movement of giant tree trunks usually does not go unnoticed, but it comes down to the wood pulp: a lot of the paperwork is falsified to hide timber origins, logging dates and ownership.

During the first pandemic lockdown in Peru from mid-March through June 2020, all timber cutting activity was suspended. Nevertheless, when restrictions were lifted at the beginning of July, about 130 trucks were already parked in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, loaded with timber ready to be sold. The quantity of wood alone was sufficient to raise suspicion of its legality with SERFOR (the National Forestry Service). It was simply impossible for this amount of timber to have been logged in the mere four days that the timber activity had officially resumed. 

A couple months later, local non-profit organization ACCA (Conservación Amazónica) filed an official legal case as they were seeing trees being logged from their privately protected 150.000ha conservation concession. This claim eventually led to a major crackdown of the Madre de Dios logging mafia, called ‘Los hostiles de la Amazonía’. The far-reaching criminal network included current and former directors of the regional government’s forestry department, police officers, administrators at timber marketing control points, and many loggers and truckers. In total, 29 main suspects have been identified and so far, 17 people have been arrested.

These government officials and other intermediaries were found to falsify certificates declaring the legal origin of timber. All people involved with this logging mafia ensured the uninterrupted passage of illegally logged timber through the various checkpoints on their way to market, while taking part of the profits.

This illicit situation doesn’t surprise retired logger Víctor Kalinowski, who initially joined a cooperation which harvests wood sustainably by picking naturally fallen trees out of the river, but: ‘When we would need more wood, we would just go to the nearest native community and get it from the forest.’ – he tells me. Knowing the right people for the right checkpoints, did the rest of the trick.

Víctor learned how to operate the chainsaw from his father at 12 years old, right after finishing primary school. He was a logger from 2010 onward but only lasted four years in the industry, because it was too unpredictable to sustainably support his young family. He had small children that needed tuition fees and the dangers of his logging work did not outweigh the benefits. ‘The conditions in the field were horrible, working in heavy rains and storms, day and night, with bad food and heavy equipment. The eventual pay we got from the work wasn’t profitable.’ 

The cooperative he joined is called ‘Asociación de Madereros y Artesanos de Boca Manu e Isla de los Valles’. This group is registered as an association and works in a social and communal way where all the men work together, which also means sharing profits. They collect the trees that float along the Manu River when the water level is high enough to facilitate the transfer of the trunks to the banks. The association has permits to extract this natural wood in the peak rainy season, which lasts from January till March. But the rest of the year some loggers had to resort to illegal logging to make ends meet.

Víctor explains that not just any tree from the forest was taken. They chose the tree to log based on the market demands. For example, if the gold miners needed a boat, they needed a 15-meter log. ‘So we would cut a tree that would fit that description, usually opting for a Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) or catahua (Hura crepitans). We mixed it with the other wood, and sold it, in a clandestine way. We would take it to the river at night, tie the floating trunks to a boat, and take it to the port of Boca Colorado [a small village on the Madre de Dios River]. There are people there who buy the wood and transport it onward to Cusco or Puerto Maldonado.’

“The clandestine industry of wood is massive, because there is no real consequence if you do not comply with the law.”

Retired Logger Víctor Kalinowski

Víctor’s initial attempt to opt for sustainable logging was quickly met with frustration. ‘Our association in Manu had access to a conservation concession, which comes with specific rights and duties. But it doesn’t work, the community of Diamante [a native community on the Madre de Dios river] has cut everything down. The clandestine industry of wood is massive, because there is no real consequence if you do not comply with the law. Nowadays, people just pay a bribe to the local government to get the correct papers for their illegal wood in order to sell or transport it. It’s a ghost industry. In Tambopata, they are now collecting many different species of hardwood trees. Big loads of wood are floating down the river at night, while no one is checking.’ 

Why isn’t there more legislation or penalization?

To me it seems that there are various moments between whipping the chainsaw out and selling the wood on the black market, when someone with legal power could easily intervene and penalize the perpetrators.

However, intercepting the transport of illegal wood and punishing loggers is harder than it may seem. A lack of governmental capacity and large, diffuse criminal networks all contribute to the lack of penalization. Additionally, poorly incentivized or informed sustainable consumption, willing pass-through markets and enabling financial and legal structures, make it challenging to stop this illicit logging. Corruption enables and perpetuates all of these issues.

In 2020, a national strategy to fight illegal logging was created, to be enacted over the following five years. This governmental document (ENLTI; Estrategia Nacional multisectorial de Lucha contra Tala Ilegal) defines that the fight against illegal logging, in order to be effective, must have a broad approach. It states that interventions are necessary in the forest, but also in the entire production chain and contemplating forest governance in a transversal manner, without neglecting the protection of human rights of the people involved. 

Isn’t five years a bit short to beat this massive underground industry, laced with corruption and violence? Multiple times, I tried speaking to people from the National Forestry Service (SERFOR) about their short-term plan, but to no avail. The only response I get is that the topic of illegal logging is indeed important, but an interview with detailed questions is not possible.  

So why not stop illegal logging bottom-up, starting with the loggers? Intervening at the start of the product chain is hard, since logging in the Amazon is very difficult to detect. It almost always is selective logging of individual valuable trees, which doesn’t create large clear-cuts, and since the rainforest is so vast and uninhabited, loggers rarely get caught in the act. However, individuals or organizations who own private forest concessions can take matters into their own hands when it comes to detection of illegal activity.

I spoke to a contact who works for a prominent non-profit organization that protects a large forest concession in Peru, and whose job is detecting and reporting illegal logging. He requested to remain anonymous, because the most dangerous part of his job isn’t the venomous snakes or handling a gun, but loggers seeking retaliation after he reports them to the local police.

‘We need to have alternative careers and different ways to obtain natural resources. The local communities need to learn how to collect wood sustainably and see the living forest as the most useful and valuable resource… People need to find ways to get money from the forest, without logging.’

He is extremely well-trained for this job and has an education in forest management, studying conservation and protection of fauna, has been part of the Peruvian armed forces and is now working in the field to combine his skills and knowledge.

I asked him about the protocol to detect illegal logging in the concession: ‘We have a very complete step-by-step approach. The detection of the logging starts with observing satellite imagery and occasionally drone footage. We get information on where in the concession this is occurring, what the scale is, and when it was first observed. We collect as much information as we can and start planning our field entry. We go on a focused multi-day expedition with a group of about eight rangers and report everything we see. Our objective is to intervene in any activity, collect evidence and report it to the local authorities.’

‘We approach the concession area of interest in a boat, overnight in a nearby camp, and then walk towards the new logging camp. We present ourselves as strong and powerful. We take GPS coordinates, videos, photos, audio and everything that will help us to file the case.’

He has clear thoughts on what could prevent illegal logging from happening: ‘We need to have alternative careers and different ways to obtain natural resources. The local communities need to learn how to collect wood sustainably and see the living forest as the most useful and valuable resource. For example, Brazil nuts and cacao can be collected in standing, living forest. People need to find ways to get money from the forest, without logging.’

Aren’t there easier ways to detect illegal logging?

Until recently, the vast green jungle was basically a black box. No one would see, hear or notice anyone going in with a saw or coming out with their bounty. But now, new techniques are being developed to make detection easier. From next generation satellites to tiny microphones, all ears and eyes are on the forest.

The MAAProject analyzes satellite imagery to identify all new logging roads built in the Peruvian Amazon over the past eight years. It is possible to track logging road construction in near-real time using three satellite-based systems: GLAD alerts, radar satellites, and optical satellites. 

Each GLAD alert (Global Land Analysis & Discovery) is activated when satellite imagery shows a change in the forest canopy cover in an area of forest, with a minimum size of two basketball courts, which indicates that trees in that area may have fallen or been removed. 

While several organizations use satellite images to track forest disturbance, the use of drones helps smaller landowners protect their difficult-to-access terrains. To help them, non-profit Conservación Amazónica trains local landowners, Indigenous communities, students, and government officials to use cutting-edge smartphone and drone technology to monitor and stop deforestation. In 2019, they trained and certified 89 individuals in using drones to detect illegal activities in remote areas of their forests and help them with legal support to report them using drone imagery as legally-admissible evidence for law enforcement to be able to take action and prosecute offenders. 

Other technological advances are made by installing microphones in the forest to pick up sounds of chainsaws and human voices. This acoustic monitoring can work if the microphones are placed deep inside the forest on tall trees, and are able to send an alert to a receiver in the case illicit sounds are picked up. This system has yet to prove its operability, but the possibilities are endless if you think of microphones in a forest; why not stick them on a bird, or let them float downriver? The more coverage, the better.

What actually happens to the forest when large trees are logged?

For nature-lovers, it’s a tear-jerking sight to see massive trees being taken away from their forest. But scientifically speaking, does the forest really suffer from selective logging?

There is a chance that the chopped-down tree housed bird and small mammal nests, and had a nutritional value for monkeys, birds and insects if it bore fleshy fruit. These animals will need to find new trees to nest and forage. Besides this, following the opening of a gap, a classical ecological change will take place in the surrounding vegetation. The gap is taken over by light-demanding pioneer species, and will slowly be colonized by shade-tolerant, late-successional and climax species. 

Disturbance in the rainforest isn’t always a bad thing, as it gives space for new species and natural processes to occur.  For example, Heliconia plants are typical pioneer species who take advantage of an open space in the forest. Their bright and abundant flowers are food sources for hummingbirds and provide shelter for bats and insects. The newly found gap creates a space for these species, who do not necessarily know that this wasn’t a natural treefall, but a human-made one.

However, there are clear disadvantages to logging compared to natural tree falls. Important forest harvesting damages are wood waste and impact to the remaining forest, such as log skidding, skid trails, and surrounding clearing. Some simple adaptations, such as implementing a log landing to process the tree trunk, will reduce vegetation damage and guarantee timber yield regulation in natural forests. 

Without that, the surrounding forest will continue to have high mortality rates of damaged trees.

This means that environmentally speaking, there is a large difference between the occasional treefall and a systemically logged forest where roads penetrate deeper and deeper into pristine areas.

Wherever there is a road, more logging tends to follow. A study found that nearly all logging occurred within 25 km of main roads, and within that area the probability of deforestation for a logged forest was up to four times greater than for unlogged forests.

And wherever there is a road, more logging tends to follow. A study found that nearly all logging occurred within 25 km of main roads, and within that area the probability of deforestation for a logged forest was up to four times greater than for unlogged forests. The illegal logging is dominated by highly damaging operations often followed rapidly by deforestation decades before forests can recover sufficiently to produce timber for a second harvest.

At the end of the road

What does the future hold for large trees and illegal loggers in the Peruvian rainforest?

The solution to stop illegal logging to stop this, seems to be three-fold:

  1. Improve detection of illegal logging with the help of conservation technology,
  2. Reduce corruption in the supply chain, and
  3. Provide alternative means for loggers to make a living from a living forest.

A hopeful note is that FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) forest management certification in Peru has steadily grown over the last few years. This growth has enabled the broadening of the economic, social and environmental impacts of FSC certification, thus securing the benefits of sustainable forest production. These achievements are due to the efforts of companies and communities changing their approaches and adopting more responsible harvesting strategies to maintain the forest environment, and also to meet market demands.

Additionally, many landowners are selling carbon credits through the United Nations REDD+ framework. This program creates a financial value for the carbon stored in forests by offering incentives to keep the forest standing tall. Landowners receive results-based payments for results-based actions.

Maybe the implementation of the new national strategy against illegal logging (ENLTI) is indeed a new start to combat illegal logging. The ministry of agriculture has promised its implementation and a special commission is installed to check legality of wood. Sharing efforts between departments might make corruption harder to persist. 

At the end of the road, getting the right people in the right place, who value nature and their morals more than a bribe, might be just what it takes to significantly decrease the illegal logging industry.


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