Going Undercover to Fight Illegal Logging

Going undercover to plant GPS trackers on truck shipments sounds like a plotline from the TV drama 24, or a James Bond movie. But that's just what Greenpeace did to track shipments of illegally-logged timber from the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to sawmills and eventually overseas, including the United States and European Union. This important investigation shows that U.S. companies should be careful when importing wood from Brazil.

In a new report, The Amazon's Silent Crisis: Night Terrors, Greenpeace details how sawmills in Brazil use falsified paperwork to launder timber that has been harvested illegally in the remote state of Pará. Throughout August and September, Greenpeace staff went undercover to place GPS tracking beacons on logging trucks. These trucks repeatedly drove routes into the jungle to pick up illegally-harvested timber, delivering their cargo to sawmills under the cover of darkness to avoid detection. For example, of the many trucks that use a 24-hour ferry to cross the remote Curua-Una River, the heaviest traffic occurs between 11:00 PM and 1:30 AM.

The sawmills investigated by Greenpeace all claim to be processing wood harvested legally from forest concessions. However, overflights show that the land they claim to be logging either has been minimally logged, or in most cases, not logged at all. On the other hand, the trucks tracked by GPS picked up logs from land that is owned by Brazil's forest service and is not authorized for logging. This timber does not stay in Brazil, but is destined for the international market. In recent months the sawmills monitored in the investigation were the source of wood shipments to a wide range of countries, including members of the European Union and the United States.

Illegal logging doesn't just drive deforestation, it funds organized crime and threatens American jobs by undercutting legal with products with cheaper illegally-sourced counterparts. It also threatens local communities by destroying forests they depend on. Notably, this report comes on the heels of the tragic deaths of local activists in Peru who had been fighting illegal logging.

This report has implications for companies that import wood products into the United States. Under the Lacey Act, a landmark law that bans trafficking of illegal plant and wildlife products, companies must take "due care" in ensuring their wood products are not sourced illegally. Companies violating the law face fines or jail time. With numerous news articles and reports detailing timber laundering in the Brazilian Amazon, it is clear that companies importing Brazilian wood into the United States must go beyond merely accepting laundered paperwork to ensure their wood products are sourced legally.

This critical investigation provides a window into how illegal logging takes place in the Amazon and how wood products are laundered for sale onto the global market. Just as Greenpeace used technology to track shipments of illegally-harvested timber, it is imperative that companies employ advanced technology and take additional steps to help reduce illegal logging and that the United States fully enforce the Lacey Act to ensure that no illegally logged wood is getting by. After all, it's not only the right thing to do, it's required by law.

To learn more about other investigations, check out Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune's recent blog on illegal logging in the Russian Far East.