Its journey unchecked by the authorities, a truck carrying illegal lumber journeys down the Transamazon Highway (BR-230), near the settlement of Santo Antônio de Matupi, in Manicoré (AM). The effective absence of the State in many regions causes new clandestine lumber centers to emerge throughout the Amazon in an activity dominated by illegality. / Photo: Bruno Kelly

The timber problem

Predatory logging in the Amazon is a long term threat to the survival of the forest. Sustainable management has brought new perspectives to this old struggle, but even today 90% of timber logging takes place outside the law.

The industry of sustainable logging in the Amazon is relatively recent. Its entrance on the scene since the 1980s aimed to change the status quo of disorder and illegality. The term sustainable management is used to define the set of logging practices that respect the forest’s natural cycle of regeneration. In the Amazon, the permitted volume of trees to be logged is judged on the basis of numerical calculations. In general, the allowance limits the extraction to 30m3 of timber per hectare, or roughly four to six trees, in cycles of 35 years each. The choice of trees to be extracted also follows rules set to avoid the local extinction of rare species and to preserve the fauna. There are two legal ways to practice logging in the Amazon. In public forests there is a concession model; in private areas, through state-authorized management plans.

The Forest Concession Law dates back to 2006, but the first extraction permits were granted to companies in 2008. Since then, six national forests in the states of Pará and Rondônia summing 1 million hectares have joined the concession model. The target is to multiply the current volume up to 7 million hectares of forest until 2022, according to data from the Brazilian Forest Service, an agency linked to the Ministry of the Environment that oversees the program of forest concessions in the Amazon.

In the case of private areas, a producer who wishes to sustainably log his Legal Reserve – the forest that should be preserved inside private properties, according to the law – need to file a request to the State Department of the Environment. All information regarding the area to be exploited, the type of forest and the species of flora and fauna that occur within it, should be gathered in a document called a management plan. Once this plan is approved, the producer is able to join the legal system of timber trade in Brazil, through which – according to data from transportation inspection of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources (Ibama) – circulated R$ 4.8 billion in 2015 (about USD$ 1.5 billion). The problem is that virtually half of the industry operates outside the law, through illegal logging.

Hidden in isolated areas of the forest, courtyards and sawmills do not always escape large-scale inspections, and may be exposed by operations involving Ibama and the Federal Police, among other agencies of the Brazilian government. But command and control enforcement and monitoring are not enough to curb deforestation and degradation: we must also invest in a more sustainable development model for the region. / Photo: Bruno Kelly

Why does illegal logging prevail?

The control system works like this: each management plan determines how much timber can be logged in a given period. The amount reverts into credits in the electronic system on behalf of the owner. Once this timber is extracted and transported, the information must be updated in the system, withdrawing the amount from that account. “At the time of purchase, it becomes an electronic wiring. You credit this timber to the name of the purchaser”, explains Jair Schmidt, Ibama’s chief inspector.

The system is overseen by state agencies, the same that authorize the management plans. For Jair, therein lies the problem: “There are too many loopholes for frauds”, he says. There are several ways to perpetuate the illegal timber trade in the Amazon, for example, through the authorizations of false management plans or through attacks by computer hackers. The most common of practices is overestimating the amount of timber found in a particular area in order to generate extra credits in the system. The credits’ owner may then use them for the illegal logging of another forest parcel.

“It is estimated that around 9 million m3 of timber, the equivalent of 30 000 hectares of forest, are given away to extraction by the state departments each year. There are suspicions that half of this timber comes from illegal logging”, says Jair. Pedro Moura Costa, president of the Environmental Stock Exchange, BVRio – created with the goal of putting forward market tools to support the growth of green economy in Brazil – goes further. According to him, irregularities permeate 90% of the timber chain in the Amazon. “In addition to 50% of the wood from the Amazon being exploited illegally, at least another 40% contain some kind of irregularity, such as document fraud or use of slave labor”, says Pedro.

An infection in the forest system

“In choosing between a forest raised to the ground or one from which only a few trees have been extracted, the latter seems to be by far the best scenario”, says Erika Berenguer, a tropical rainforest specialist at Universities of Lancaster and Oxford and a member of the Sustainable Amazon Network (Rede Amazônia Sustentável, RAS). The problem is that the devil lies in the detail. Predatory logging leads to the opening of new roads to allow access to these areas. Roads permit colonization and settlement. Soon there will be more disturbances like hunting that lead to additional forest degradation, as well as the possibility of deforestation itself. Even the removal of only a few hardwood trees causes an impact – just think of the impact of a 30 m tall Ipê tree falling down and taking with it the lives of many more ‘non-target’ trees. Forests with a more open canopy become drier. Trunks and leaves on the ground are the perfect kindling for forest fires. “Predatory logging is the first step in a process of forest degradation that leads to a dramatic reduction of the value of forests for biodiversity”, explains Erika.

Joice Ferreira, a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation – Eastern Amazon (Embapa Amazônia Ocidental) and one of the founders of the Sustainable Amazon Network (RAS), points out that the consumers play an important role. “Buyers must demand documentation for the timber they are purchasing. Illegality is there solely because there is a market”. The Forest Origin Document (DOF) accompanies the timber whenever it is transported – from the forest to the shelf. The problem is that not all Amazonian states use the DOF, which is overseen by Ibama. Among those that rely on their own system are Pará and Mato Grosso, responsible for 70% of timber traded in the country, according to BVRio’s report.

For four years IBAMA has been planning to unify the database system of all the timber that circulates inside the country. The idea behind it is to give the institution the full vision of where the timber comes from and where it goes until it is sold. The system is called Sinaflor and was launched in March 2017. The states have until the end of this year to see it fully implemented.

Another alternative for the consumer is to be aware of certification labels. The most common of these is the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Certification, however, is expensive for producers. “Since there is a lot of bootlegging, the ones that do everything according to the law end up gaining little advantage”, says Jair. Among its market initiatives, BVRio created a virtual Timber Stock Exchange for the sale of products with a guarantee of responsible and traceable origin. The platform also allows the buyer to verify, via a documentation number for each lot, the risk of it being issued from irregular extraction.

Policies for sustainable management also need to go hand-in-hand with what specialists suggest. Joice Ferreira states the main recommendations: “There must be mechanisms that ensure that timber extraction will not serve as a gateway for deforestation and hunting. In addition, we should avoid the concession of extraction in remote areas, where the forests are in good condition, in order for them to remain preserved”, she suggests. “It is important to keep some forests completely devoid of any human intervention so they can be a source of native species that can help bring other forests back to life”, concludes the researcher.