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Brazil Ups Arrests as Timber-Laundering Sweeps the Nation

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Leadership & Transparency
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More than 30 officials were arrested in Brazil after an investigation revealed local businessmen and sawmill owners were timber laundering and illegally lying about how much timber they were allowed to access.

Brazilian timber, traditionally used for dense hardwoods seen in construction, decking and furniture, is exported to the EU — particularly France — and the U.S. at incredibly high rates.

Many of the arrests took place in the up-and-coming city of Santarem. Sitting in an oasis of natural reserves, indigenous territory and large-scale farms, Santarem is riddled with deforestation and malpractice in oversupplying timber in either sensitive or protected areas of Brazil.

Prosecutors said they stumbled into the case after hacking into the phone of a suspected drug smuggler. The smuggler, known as Pacoca, ditched the drugs and put his focus into timber laundering, unknowingly drawing the investigators with him. The prosecutors think he and a partner created fake documentation for more than 100,000 cubic meters of timber per month.

This was, by no means, a small-scale task: Prosecutor Fabiana Schneider said the operation drew some of the “biggest illegal traders of timber in Brazil.”

The laundering was mostly done by falsely reporting how much timber the landowner is entitled to cut from his property. Prosecutors said, in one case, officials fiddled with the documentation to increase an approval for 121 cubic meters of wood to 121,000 cubic meters. The trees are then cut, cleaned and distributed to timber yards. The timber is taken to numerous different locations during these processes, making it tough to track the validity and legality of its origin.

According to an article in the Guardian, most Brazilian timber exports are sustainability logged, but police say at least 80 percent of timber produced from Para, the Brazilian state where Santarem is located, is illegally logged. Cookie-cutter organizations that oblige by the deforestation limits and rules set up by Brazil and other environmentalists stand no chance in competing against scheming organizations that use false documentation to increase their business.

The Guardian also reported that securing the suspects behind bars is no easy task due to Brazilian judges’ leniency toward environmental crimes. However, prosecutors will attempt to enact a new law that could give abusers three to eight years in jail. The Brazilian courts have a chance to set an example for those loggers illegally obtaining timber by cracking down on the 30-plus individuals arrested Monday.

Image credit: Flickr/Dwood Photography

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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