Illegal Amazon loggers: ‘Anyone who buys the wood is as guilty as I’
Industry in Peru powered by mafia to feed appetite of industrialised western societies
Alberto goes to work chopping wood near his village in the Peruvian Amazon. Photograph: Didem Tali
The weak growth of this secondary jungle in the Peruvian Amazon demonstrates the extent to which it has been destroyed by illegal loggers. Photograph: Didem Tali
Loggers load tree trunks from their boats to waiting trucks. Photograph: Didem Tali
A dusty Shipibo household which is supported by logging activities. Photograph: Didem Tali
Alberto woke at 6am, had breakfast with his family, kissed his three daughters and headed to work. He spent the following hours chopping wood and getting it ready to be shipped. Bringing these enormous tree trunks down to the river isn’t an easy task. But once they’re in the river, the transportation is smooth.
“Maybe some of this wood will end up in your homes, as a chair or a table. It will all be exported,” he said, as he was connecting the logs to a boat.
Alberto (37), whose name has been changed to protect his identity, lives in a remote village in the Ucayali region, Peru’s Amazon basin. His village is eight hours by boat from the closest town, Pucallpa – a historical port that connects the Peruvian Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean, and the region’s capital.
From his village, the logs will first travel to Pucallpa. From there they will be transported by river to the Atlantic for shipping to the industrialised societies of China or the West.
Alberto’s village is located deep in the Peruvian Amazon. There are no phone networks and not even the postmen come here. That said, this sleepy village, which derives its entire income from logging, is far from being an idyllic rural retreat. The ground is covered with sawdust rather than fertile red earth. In the village, days start early, not with the chirps of the colourful Amazonian birds, but with the sound of German-imported industrial woodcutters.
“I know exactly why you are here,” Alberto tells me, his eyes on my big DSLR camera. “Not many tourists come here.”
“You will ask me why I am ruining the forest, risking my daughters’ future. You will ask why I couldn’t simply get another job. But I don’t care. Write what you want. “But if you’re going to write about it, please also write that I was jobless in Pucallpa for years until I came here. I have a family to feed. It’s not that I don’t care about our future, I just had nothing else to do.”
“Of course, I know that cutting trees for a living isn’t nice. But please also add that at least I am never going into the virgin forest. I always cut in the secondary forest and try to reforest the areas I have cut down. Once you sow the seeds, the trees grow very quickly over here anyway.”
The global illegal logging industry is estimated to be worth $30 billion and $100 billion (€27 billion–€90 billion) and many of the people who contribute to this are small tradesmen like Alberto. However, it’s mainly the illegal logging mafia that controls and dominates the trade, and takes the lion’s share of the financial gains.
The mafia has been violating the jungle and the ancestral lands of the indigenous people since the 1970s, in tandem with the rise of political tensions in Peru and emerging guerrilla groups hiding in the Amazon. Although the Peruvian special environmental police forces recently started to target the logging mafia by arresting members of the gang, it continues to thrive in the jungle.
Up to 80 per cent of the logging industry in Peru is illegal. As soon as I hired a boat to leave Pucallpa to venture into the Amazon, the only economic activity seemed to be logging. During the days I spent in the remote villages of the region, I saw little else but stacks of wood, boats with floating logs behind and woodcutting machinery. Ucayali river, headwater of the Amazon, appeared to be a waterway for trading logs.
As a smalltime beneficiary of the trade, Alberto can make up to 10 Nuevo Soles (€2.75) per log, enough to support him and his family. The mafia bosses who run the business make far more.
Undoubtedly, the biggest losers of the illegal logging trade are the indigenous Amazonian communities that called this ancient forest home for thousands of years. The industry not only destroys the forests that are the homes of these communities, the presence of the mafia also brings security risks.
“We cannot talk about illegal logging without talking about narco-trafficking,” says Eli Sanchez, a professor at the Amazonian Intercultural University in Pucallpa and an indigenous political rights activist.
It’s difficult for the government to properly vet and regulate these remote locations, where the cocaine trade thrives alongside the illegal logging industry. During Peru’s civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, the Maoist guerrillas hiding in the forests also fostered the growth of illegal logging and drug trafficking, Sanchez explained.
Peru is the world’s second cocaine producer after Colombia, according InSight Crime, which monitors organised crime in Latin America. For the illegal traders who can export tonnes of tree trunks conveniently from the Amazon to the rest of the world, transporting cocaine doesn’t seem to be a problem.
“There’s simply too much money in this for anyone to be concerned about the indigenous communities,” says Sanchez.
“We are willing to do anything we can to gain our lands back. We are ready to fight and die if needs be,” says Ines Gonzales, an elderly woman from the indigenous Asháninka community. “But the mafia is simply too strong. They have been violating our forests for more than 40 years. We are just forest people. We love these forests more than ourselves, but we cannot fight them just on our own.”
Since the 1970s, Asháninka ancestral lands have been systematically destroyed due to the rise of illegal logging, as well as the activities of oil companies. Indigenous groups have been in a decades-long struggle to get their land rights recognised.
In 2014, community members on their ways to complete the paperwork were murdered by illegal loggers. But this only gave the Asháninkas increased motivation to fight for their rights. Finally, in August 2015, over 80,000 hectares of land was handed back to an Asháninka community in Ucayali.
However, there are more than 1,600 indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon whose titles have yet to be recognised. Research by the World Resources Institute, a global research NGO, shows that government recognition of territorial rights not only significantly improves the life conditions of people indigenous to forests, but that empowering such groups could be a game-changer for global climate change.
However, poverty and lack of land rights prevent indigenous communities from protecting their ancestral lands. Although many groups fight against the forces that colonise their forests, others – afflicted by poverty – end up participating in the logging activities too.
Ximena Guimaray, the chief of the remote indigenous village of Shipibo, admits that the only economic activity of the village is logging. Like Alberto, she is defensive and angry at the conditions in which she and her family have to live. She feels ignored and alienated, she says.
“They are telling us that we are robbing the state by cutting the trees. We are not living here, we are barely surviving. We don’t have health services. We don’t have education. Our children don’t have any opportunities. There are no jobs. We don’t even have postal services. Yet the government is trying to take money from us whenever they can. Can I ask you, who is robbing whom?” Guimaray says.
Working to eat
“They also say we are lazy. But that’s not true. We are working day and night just so that we can eat,” she adds.
Beaten down by this poverty, some indigenous populations of the Amazon don’t have the power to resist and protect their forests.
Many migrate to cities in masses, where they face other problems such as racism, lack of access to opportunities or challenges in health.
Alberto, who moved to his current village from Pucallpa 15 years ago, admits he is aware of how fast the Amazon is shrinking. He knows that he and many people like him have contributed to this, but he doesn’t feel particularly guilty about it. Neither does Ximena Guimaray, who lives in another village.
“If I completely stopped what I am doing now and found another job,” Alberto said, “ the demand would be still there. The people who buy logs from me would simply find another source of supply.”
He believes it’s not necessarily him, someone like him, or the government that is to blame. It’s the greedy global consumerist society that keeps “needing” things, buying things and throwing things away.
“In fact, I think anyone who keeps buying these items made of wood is as guilty as I am.”
Some names and personal details have been changed as requested by the individuals.
First article of two. Tomorrow: Peru’s indigenous communities migrate to the cities
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund