HOUSTON (AP) — Never before had so much lumber been denied entry at a U.S. port on evidence that it was harvested illegally.
Houston customs agents, acting on intelligence from their Peruvian counterparts, halted 1,770 metric tons of Amazon rainforest wood – enough to cover three football fields. The October 2015 impoundment from a rusty freighter was a rare victory in the battle to preserve tropical forests and a blow against organized criminal logging in Peru, where the World Bank says 80 percent of timber exports are illegal.
But the triumph was short-lived. The driving force behind the operation, the chief of Peru’s forest inspection service, was soon dismissed – on the same day the U.S. ambassador visited him for a pep talk – and forced by death threats to flee to the United States.
Government actions further undermined Washington’s efforts to get Peru to clean up its notoriously corrupt timber industry, an Associated Press investigation found, as Lima failed to meet environmental enforcement requirements set by a 2006 free trade agreement with the U.S.
Now the United States has little to show for more than $90 million in forest-protection aid and other assistance to Peru, which is home to the world’s second-largest swath of the Amazon after Brazil and has been losing about 600 square miles of forest each year – an area roughly equal to half of Rhode Island.
The U.S. was hoodwinked into believing the Peruvian government was serious about taking down illegal loggers, said Rocky Piaggone, a U.S. attorney for environmental crimes who visited Peru regularly before retiring last year.
“They were expecting to get prosecutions, but they got nothing,” he said, and their eyes were opened when the forest inspection chief – whose job they had been assured was safe – was fired.
Since then, inspections to detect criminal timber harvesting have been scaled back. Prosecutions have barely advanced, and officials who signed falsified logging permits remain on the job.
A FIREBOMBING AND EXILE
Illegal logging is the world’s most lucrative environmental crime, according to the United Nations, inflicting at least $50 billion a year in economic damage. It is typically intertwined with money laundering and tax fraud, Interpol says, and its sophistication often overwhelms law enforcement in countries where the logging happens.
Congress in 2008 tried to ensure that rainforest wouldn’t be ravaged to put wood in American homes, making trafficking in illegally harvested timber a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
The new law’s biggest casualty, Lumber Liquidators Inc., pleaded guilty in 2015 to knowingly importing illegally cut timber from Russia’s far east, where Siberian tigers were imperiled. The company paid $13 million in fines and restitution.
The $1. 5 million shipment impounded in Houston contained species commonly used for plywood, molding and flooring. A separate shipment was later seized in Mexico, effectively shutting down Peru’s lone Amazon River wood export route.
Peru’s superintendent of tax and customs control described the damage exacted on the