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'Free-for-all' illegal logging of mahogany in Peruvian parks, says Duke-based monitoring group

Duke University

ParksWatch director Chris Fagan (right) with a local indigenous guide traveling in the Peruvian jungle to investigate illegal mahogany cutting (photo courtesy of Chris Fagan)

Full size image available here

DURHAM -- A new report by ParksWatch, a Duke University-headquartered organization, presents evidence of illegal mahogany logging inside the remote Alto Purús National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. The information was gathered during a month-long jungle expedition just weeks before the protected area received a national park designation.

The report is available on a section of ParksWatch's website,

The expedition's leaders and the report's authors are 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 seven Central and South American nations.

Illegal logging in the Alto Purús, which takes mature seed-producing trees, threatens one of the richest reservoirs of the prized and hard-to-grow species left in Peru, the two investigators wrote in their report.

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 jungle trek from September 16 to October 15, 2004. The trip was funded by an anonymous donor, Fagan said in an interview.

"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."

Just weeks after the expedition's conclusion, 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."

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, he cautions that the park's declaration is only half the battle. "Because the area is so remote, there is hardly any enforcement of park boundaries," he said.

According to Fagan, ParksWatch's 2004 visit was a follow-up to a 2000 expedition he joined to the same area. That trip was led by John Terborgh, a Nicholas School professor of environmental science who has long conducted research in an adjacent region now designated the Manu National Park.

Fagan wrote a chapter in a resulting book, Alto Purús: It's Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, which was published by Duke's Center for Tropical Conservation, which Terborgh directs. Terborgh also founded ParksWatch.

The new park is named for a tributary of the Amazon River that flows through its heart. According to the new ParksWatch report, 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," the report added.

"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 report said. "With mahogany still being the highest-valued tropical timber species on the international market, the Alto Purús has become a hotspot for illicit logging."

Fagan said the 2004 expedition aimed 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 was then said to be mixed to escape detection.

To verify these reports, the expedition first began traveling upriver aboard motorized dugout canoes. But, to avoid an unexpected encounter with reclusive natives that shun contact with outsiders, the team then turned back and boarded an airplane. On that jungle flight, Fagan and Shoobridge spotted an apparent 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 recalled.

The ParksWatch investigators also talked to a woman who said she was a cook in that camp, which appeared unpopulated at the time of their overflight. And the same loggers told them that twelve of their colleagues had moved mahogany boards from the park just days earlier, according to the report.

ParksWatch's team was informed those boards had been stacked into rafts and floated out on another river, the Sepahua. Fagan's and Shoobridge's report also cited their own evidence that a government wood monitoring checkpoint on the Sepahua was not being properly 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."

In their report, Fagan and Shoobridge wrote that some camps are said to be used as "production centers for narcotics."

The ParksWatch report and the previous Center for Tropical Conservation book also 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 "sustainably" replaced with new and viable seedlings.

Fagan said loggers often 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."

According to the ParksWatch report, trade of illegal mahogany violates international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

"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 Martha Martinez, ParksWatch's current director. "Even then it can be questionable, because CITES doesn't go into the field and verify exactly where the logs are coming from."

Martinez previously coordinated a Conservation International study that established the exceptional 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 1/2 acres) or less," she noted.

"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."


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