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Illegal Logging

October 26, 2013

Throughout this blog I have been wrestling with what is appropriate to communicate in this forum, and what should not be spoken about. As a famous philosopher once wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Don Machinga

Don Machinga

I have had very direct guidance and instructions in my dietas on what I should and what I should not be writing about. In my last but one blog, which tried to stock take of the work I have done with La Madre Ayahuasca over the past nearly four years, I mentioned that Don Machinga had withdrawn from me – partly because I had inappropriately revealed aspects of his world that were best kept private and partly because he is still waiting for me to do something about illegal logging.

In the ceremony after receiving these messages from Don Machinga, when I was doing a long thirty day dieta, I had the idea to ask him what he thought I could do. I have to say that I asked him this in a slightly belligerent tone. His answer to me was in kind: “Don’t ask me, I’m a tree. You’re the human being. You figure it out.”

Since then I have been trying to figure out what I can do about illegal logging. I have spoken to colleagues and friends in Peru about this and also have been reading related material. I have by no means worked this out – and I would be hugely grateful for any suggestions my readers might want to make – but this blog will be an attempt to put together what I have learned so far – partly in a vain attempt to appease Don Machinga, (which is not really that smart a strategy – he’s implacable!) and partly to try and gather my thoughts and ideas about this.

One obvious thing I have done is helped ensure that the organization I work with is using wood from authenticated sustainable sources. This is not so straightforward as it sounds for reasons I hope to make clearer later. One very common reason for not using sustainably harvested wood is that it is more costly. But that is not a good reason.

Part of the problem with capitalism and the environmental crisis is that the true cost of products, including all the environmental costs incurred, are not reflected in the prices, which actually goes against the raison d’être of capitalism as a supposedly efficient and rational market system helping to reduce prices via free and open competition for the benefit of consumers. So, for example, one of the reasons that oil can be relatively cheap is because all the associated costs due to environmental damage (notably carbon emissions) are not reflected in its price but get taken on by society. The technical economic term for these additional costs (or benefits) is externality’.

Likewise wood. Sustainably harvested wood costs more as more care, time, and labor is needed over the management of the forest. The real costs of illegal wood are not factored into its cheaper price. But if an environmentally oriented NGO like the one I work with is not prepared to spend more on legally harvested wood, then, (apart from the obvious incongruence in this), what other organizations are likely to do this?

tree logs

According to the Greenpeace page on illegal logging, the World Bank has estimated that over 80% of the wood sold in Peru is illegally harvested. An excellent article in National Geographic Magazine from April 2013 entitled “Mahogany’s Last Stand”, states that:

“Illegal logging has all but wiped out Peru’s mahogany. Loggers are turning their chain saws on lesser known species critical to the health of the rain forest………. loggers are now taking aim at other canopy giants few of us have ever heard of—copaiba, ishpingo, shihuahuaco, capirona—which are finding their way into our homes as bedroom sets, cabinets, flooring, and patio decks. These lesser known varieties have even fewer protections than the more charismatic, pricier ones, like mahogany, but they’re often more crucial to forest ecosystems.”

The article goes on to say, about mahogany:

“A single tree can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international market by the time its finished wood reaches showroom floors in the United States or Europe. After 2001, the year Brazil declared a moratorium on logging big-leaf mahogany, Peru emerged as one of the world’s largest suppliers.”

This is similar to what happened in Colombia when the US funded the Colombian Government to crack down on jungle labs making cocaine. They simply moved over the border to Peru so that Peru is now the largest producer of cocaine in the world.

A friend told me that some of the logging companies are closely connected to the drug cartels. First, it’s a good way to launder money. Secondly, if they can receive a legitimate concession, it’s the perfect reason to take boat loads of equipment into isolated tributaries in the far jungle, which can then be used to make clandestine cocaine labs,

The relentless search for mahogany has depleted it in all areas apart from indigenous lands, national parks, and territorial reserves set aside to protect isolated tribes, where it can be better protected.


Lupuna – the largest tree in the Rainforest

A further consequence of this is that indigenous communities become embroiled in both the legal and illegal logging business as they seek to make an income out of one of their key resources but more often than not are cheated by the logging companies.

Very recently, another very good article appeared about illegal logging in Peru in the International New York Times. This one is set in Pucallpa (my home town) and has an excellent video accompanying the article.

This article focuses on corruption.

Despite Peru, since 2007, having laws which crack down on illegal logging – brought in as part of the conditions of the Free Trade Agreement with the US – every stage of the process of bringing wood to the market is permeated by corruption. False documents are regularly used to say wood from protected areas has come from other areas and to give other names to the species of protected trees that have been cut down. If this does not work then inspectors and other Government officials are simply bribed. One of the reasons that many people want to become forestry engineers working within the government is that they know they can receive lucrative bribes which will at least triple their salary,

The article and video in the International New York Times tells the story of an environmental prosecutor who is determined to tackle illegal logging but finds obstacles at every turn, even down to when he has finally successfully brought the case to court, when a judge returned the 70 illegal logs to the logger and said:

“How am I going to send a person to jail or put them on trial for 70 little logs if I can see thousands or millions of trees growing here? ”

logging camp

Logging camp on the banks of the river Ucayali

It is the extensive nature of this corruption and the false papers provided saying that illegally harvested wood comes from a legal source that makes trying to find genuinely sustainable sources of wood here problematic.

So what can be done?

The Greenpeace web page suggests the following:

“There are several solutions to the problem of illegal logging. They include enforcement and creation of international and national laws, as well as independent timber certification companies that work with timber companies to assess and verify the legal, ecological and social sustainability of any timber operation and its wood products.

By exerting influence through the supply chain, governments have enormous power to encourage responsible forest management and reduce the demand for illegally sourced forest products. Government purchases account for a substantial proportion of world trade in timber products.”

 It seems this strategy has worked in Brazil which has succeeded in halting the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. When I asked a friend who worked in forestry how Brazil had managed to achieve this, he said it was by putting significant resources such as detailed satellite tracking and specialized enforcement agencies into the situation. The link cited also emphasizes the importance of creating indigenous and protected areas which now comprise over half of the Brazilian Amazon as well as the role of citizen pressure. So something can be done.

Interestingly, next November/December 2014, Peru is hosting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Peruvian Government is proposing that Peru’s contribution to lowering climate emissions will be through stopping further deforestation. This may create the political will and make available the resources to make some impact on this huge problem.

Clearly, there is no simple, easily implementable solution. As the informative website ‘Illegal Logging Portal’ says:

“The diversity of situations – both with respect to causes and impacts – means that there is no easy solution to illegal logging. Focusing only on enforcement of the law is not usually a solution, as this can reinforce corrupt networks or increase poverty amongst some forest users. Rather, multi-faceted approaches adapted to the particular situation are necessary to help ensure that outcomes are equitable and will be sustained in the long-term.”

One final comment on this issue returns me to Don Machinga where this blog post started. Nearly all arguments against deforestation and illegal logging emphasize the potentially disastrous effects to human life of these activities – more carbon emissions, more soil erosion, more risk of landslides and floods, more social conflict, greater institutional corruption,  loss of government revenue, and loss of biodiversity that could be useful for humans in the area of future medical treatments and cures.

the world of  noyarao

These reasons, of course, are important. But they are very anthropocentric. Environmental ethics and deep ecology stress the intrinsic value of all life forms irrespective of their human utility. Experience with La Madre Ayahuasca adds another dimension to this.

La Madre has been called a facilitator of inter-species communication. Especially during dieta, she enables us to have contact with the spirit – or, in less theological language, the ‘active intelligence’ – of the plant or tree. If we are fortunate, these experiences grace us with a glimpse of the extraordinarily rich, vast, sacred world of the large trees – as represented in the painting above of the world of the almost extinct tree noyarao and also in many of the artworks of Pablo Amaringo.

So what does it mean that we are destroying these worlds, these other exquisite spiritual realities, not just the material life of the tree? I don’t have an answer to this but I think it more than bears considering.

  1. It’s a very nice pleasure find your blog. I do the machiga diet also, in a native comunitt Shipibo, at 2010. Im concerned about this sacred trees, because I saw a lot of ilegal extracion of wood, too. I live at Cruzeiro do Sul,in brazilian amazon rain forest, near from Pucallpa. WeI believe, it´s necessary an action at the two sides from de frontier. We have the problem of the petroil too. If was possible, i would like to have a contact with you, for a further conversacion.

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