Illegal Mahogany Logging Exposed in Peru's New National Park

DURHAM, North Carolina, March 31, 2005 (ENS) - Illegal mahogany logging is taking place inside the remote Alto Purús National Park in the Peruvian Amazon, according to new research conducted during a rainforest expedition last fall just before the area was designated a national park.

Expedition leaders Chris Fagan and Diego Shoobridge of ParksWatch, a program based at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences that monitors protected areas in Central and South American countries, had received tips that trees in the protected area were being cut for the lucrative mahogany trade.

"Until our investigation, the only people who knew what was going on in this remote region were the loggers and drug traffickers and a relatively few local people," said Fagan, who until recently was a ParksWatch consultant. "These loggers are basically having a free-for-all in these forests. Hopefully this report will spur action."

Fagan, ParksWatch's former director and a research associate at the time of their visit, and Shoobridge, the current director of ParksWatch Peru, made the trek from September 16 to October 15, 2004. The trip was funded by an anonymous donor, Fagan said in an interview.

The new park is named for a tributary of the Amazon River that flows through its center. In 2000 Peru imposed a 10 year ban on mahogany and cedar timbering in several watersheds, including the Alto Purús. The ban was a reaction to the fact that "unsustainable logging has led to a precipitous decline in bigleaf mahogany populations throughout Central and South America," Fagan and Shoobridge report.

Shortly after the expedition ended, Fagan and Shoobridge learned that Peru was reclassifying the reserved zone as a national park. "This process would have required several years and involved many different organizations, so it wasn't a direct result of our investigation," said Fagan, a Nicholas School graduate. "But I think we provided a really strong case for making the area a national park."


Former ParksWatch director Chris Fagan (right) with a local indigenous guide traveling across Peru to investigate illegal mahogany cutting. (Photo courtesy Chris Fagan)
While applauding the Peruvian government's action as a welcome step towards additional protection for all trees, wildlife and uncontacted indigenous tribes within the new park, Fagan warns that the park declaration may not translate to real protection. "Because the area is so remote, there is hardly any enforcement of park boundaries," he said.

ParksWatch's 2004 visit was a follow-up to a 2000 expedition Fagan joined to the same area. That trip was led by John Terborgh, a Nicholas School professor of environmental science who founded ParksWatch.

Fagan wrote a chapter in the resulting book, "Alto Purús: Its Biodiversity, Conservation and Management," published by Duke's Center for Tropical Conservation, which Terborgh directs.

"The Alto Purús harbors one of the last remaining stands of commercially viable mahogany in Peru and Bolivia, and tree density for mahogany in the Alto Purús is among the highest in Peru," the two investigators wrote in their report. "With mahogany still being the highest-valued tropical timber species on the international market, the Alto Purús has become a hotspot for illicit logging."

The 2004 expedition set out to investigate reports that loggers were "laundering" mahogany illegally cut within the protected zone. Informants alerted ParksWatch that this wood was being transported from the Alto Purús to another watershed outside park boundaries, where timber companies held legal concessions to cut mahogany.

Legal and illegal mahogany timber was then said to be mixed to escape detection.

To verify these reports, Fagan and Shoobridge boarded an airplane to reach the remote area. On the flight, they spotted what appeared to be a loggers' camp with stacks of boards inside park boundaries.

After landing, investigators hiked towards the park's borders and spoke with two loggers who said they had just returned from the same camp. "They told us they were taking mahogany from the park, because there wasn't enough left in those logging concessions outside the park," Fagan said.

The loggers said 12 of their colleagues had moved mahogany boards from the park a few days earlier. The boards had been stacked into rafts and floated out on another river, the Sepahua.


An illegally logged clearing in the Peruvian protected area. (Photo courtesy CTC)
Fagan's and Shoobridge already had found that a government wood monitoring checkpoint on the Sepahua was not being adequately staffed.

"It would have been ideal if we had walked into the camp and taken pictures of them cutting down trees," Fagan said, acknowledging that their evidence was circumstantial. "Instead we saw the clearing and camp from the plane, then spoke to two loggers and a cook who had been working in this camp."

Some camps are said to be used as "production centers for narcotics," Fagan and Shoobridge wrote.

The ParksWatch report and the Center for Tropical Conservation book allege that loggers have been exploiting a Peruvian law that allows local indigenous residents living in and around Alto Purús to buy timber cutting permits.

The permitting system is intended to ensure both that wood is being cut in a legal location and that harvested trees are replaced with new and viable seedlings.

Fagan said loggers purchase permits on behalf of communities that cannot afford the travel costs to buy their own. Under this arrangement, the loggers may then harvest the mahogany for the locals but sell it elsewhere for a huge profit. In exchange for the valuable wood, communities may receive little more than vastly overpriced staple goods such as soap, salt, sugar, machetes and shotgun shells.

"If the loggers go to the communities and buy the wood right there, they will also offer only very cheap prices," Fagan said. "A community leader might get $30 to $60 worth of overpriced goods for a mature mahogany tree which on the international market could be worth thousands."

The ParksWatch report notes that trade of mahogany violates international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Internationally agreed trade regulations for big-leaf mahogany entered into force on November 15, 2003. This tropical timber generates over US$100 million a year in export sales, making it one of the world’s most valuable forest products.

"One purpose of the report is to inform the public and especially consumer countries like the United States that they should not import mahogany from Peru unless it has CITES certification that it's legal," said ParksWatch Director Martha Martinez. "Even then it can be questionable, because CITES doesn't go into the field and verify exactly where the logs are coming from."

Martinez coordinated an earlier Conservation International study that established the exceptionally high density of mahogany stands growing in the Alto Purús area. "When we say 'high densities of commercially viable mahogany' we're talking about only one big tree in a hectare (2.5 acres) or less," she explained.

"In general, it is a tree that is not easy to regenerate," Martinez said. "And the loggers go for the mature trees, which diminishes chances for seed production. It is also a tree that has been difficult to grow in plantations. So most of the mahogany that's on the market comes from naturally grown populations.

"It's obvious that mahogany is such an appreciated wood in the international market that loggers try to get it from wherever it is, legally or illegally."

Find the ParksWatch report at: