The Scale Of Corruption In The Peruvian Rainforest Is Astonishing

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The Prosecutor Francisco Berrospi

In 2013, Peruvian prosecutor Francisco Berrospi arrived in the Amazon with the determination to tackle widespread corruption.

Stories about the influence of illegal loggers had stunned Berrospi. He heard that bribes were continuous and the population pressure to accept them was overwhelming. “We need to work and eat”, they claimed. “This is how things work in this place”, they said. Many prosecutors before him had given in to the pressure.

In 2007, Peru had signed a free trade agreement with the United States. As a condition of the agreement, the United States demanded that all illegal logging operations were eradicated. From then on, all logging operations had to follow the conventions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.) Abiding by such regulations, industries practiced procedures that would preserve the forest and not jeopardize animal species.

The Red Gold Fever

When the Trade Agreement was ratified, both governments didn’t know how widely spread illegal logging activities had become. The region of Ucayali, deep into the eastern hemisphere, is one of the richest areas of the Peruvian Amazon. It contains vast resources of timber and similar tree species. In 2007, the Peruvian government officially compartmentalized the resource areas to be utilized by loggers. But the state ignored that, since 2001, illegal loggers had already taken possession of those areas.

In 2001, the world market for timber experienced an unexpected blow. Brazil, one of the world’s largest suppliers of Mahogany, suddenly declared a moratorium (stopping timber trade indefinitely). The timber world demand expanded dramatically and, subsequently, Peru became the primary global source for mahogany. This unparalleled demand unleashed a “Red Gold Fever” and illegal logging activities proliferated in the region.

However, in 2007, after six years of careless and predatory logging, vast areas of the Peruvian rainforest were left completely barren. Thereafter, illegal loggers invaded preservation areas, indigenous lands, territorial reserves and the national parks the government had exclusively assigned to Amazonian tribes. In the eyes of ambitious illegal loggers, these areas had turned into gold mines.

The Situation In The Peruvian Amazon 

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Prosecutor Francisco Berrospi-Image Source: NewYorktimes

Prosecutor Francisco Berrospi began its job disguised as a layman. That was his only strategy to catch both the police and authorities red-handed. Berrospi was warned beforehand that illegal loggers were not simple men working in the shadows. In fact, illegal loggers were deeply entrenched with regional authorities. As part of the elite, this mafia had befriended all authority figures, from judges, majors, police captains to customs officers and security guards.

Immediately after his arrival, another prosecutor asked Berrospi to desist: “Listen, in one year here you’ll get enough money to build yourself a house and buy a nice car.” As the days passed by, Berrospi learned astonishing details about the illegal operations. Most Amazonian municipalities only hired custom officers who were properly trained on “how things work there”. Municipalities constantly received bribes by illegal loggers and punished all officers who rejected them. In other words, displaying honesty was the surest way to be fired.

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Berrospi discovered a total negligence in enforcing the law, and a total diligence in negotiating the bribes. Local authorities also devised a way of creating and selling false permits and concessions. In 2006, for example, it was found that 92 of the 150 concessions to harvest timber were fraudulent and accounted for 85% of the timber exports for that year.

Illegal loggers showed forged permits to indigenous leaders to expel them from their territories. By cutting trees, contaminating rivers, and killing wild animals, loggers deprived the natives of their only means of subsistence. Under government pressure, entire villages relocated so that illegal loggers could exploit more reservation areas. The courageous leaders who stood up to such mafias received death threats. Edwin Chota, an Ashaninka leader whom Berrospi recently met, said that he had been receiving threats as early as 1999.

In 2006, for example, it was found that 92 of the 150 concessions to harvest timber were fraudulent and accounted for 85% of the timber exports for that year.

In summary, the extensive corruption associated with illegal logging has dissolved the broader structures of governance and the rule of law. In fact, the timber barons were masters of the region, and their orders were the only law.

The Lonely Prosecutor

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 Berrospi with confiscated equipment. Local officials returned the equipment to illegal loggers-Image Source: Nytimes

Berrospi refused to be conned. Authorities placed all sorts of obstacles to keep him from doing his job. But he was determined to confront illegal loggers. Sometimes Berrospi used money from his own pocket to travel to distant places. Overall, the investigation process was costly, because he had to travel to inaccessible zones which lacked roads. Sadly, the scarce roads had not been built by the authorities but only by logger’s mafias. The roads facilitated the transportation of timber from the rainforest to the logger’s processing facilities.

After a painstaking exploration of remote areas, Berrospi discovered an illegal logging camp. Showing his identification, he confiscated two tractors, three trucks and a lot of sewing machinery. Feeling victorious, Berrospi contacted regional officials for support. The officials said they didn’t have space to place the confiscated equipment. After continuous pleadings, Berrospi managed to contact authorities of higher rank. Surprisingly, he received the same reply. Overtaken by frustration, Berrospi finally desisted. Weeks later, he found out that local authorities had restored both the permits and the equipment to the same illegal loggers.

Later, Berrospi was contacted by someone who offered him 5,000 dollars to cease his investigations. Berrospi met immediately with a local prosecutor to denounce the bribe. He was astonished by the prosecutor’s suggestion: “Take care of yourself”

It was then that Berrospi feared for his life. “The only thing left for them to do was to get rid of me,” Berrospi said. He understood how naive he had been, trying to fight alone against such gigantic tide of corruption.

Apparently, Berrospi’s naivety became the talk of the town. The powerful illegal loggers were already negotiating for his removal. A few months later, Berrospi was officially dismissed from his position. The order had come directly from Lima, Peru’s capital, and was given by the head of the Environmental Prosecutor Office.

The Ashaninka leader Edwin Chota-Image Source: Newyorktimes

Before leaving the Amazon, Berrospi met with Edwin Chota to bid farewell. That day, Edwin Chota told him: “This is a land without law. There is only the law of the gun….There’s no money to investigate (crimes). There’s only money to destroy.”

A year later, Berrospi heard that Edwin Chota had been murdered. The news astonished him but Berrospi saw it coming. Such an honest and courageous man as Chota could not have survived in a region submerged in an abyss of corruption. Edwin Chota embodied the last trace of moral integrity in the region: this is why he was murdered.

The Amazon: Where Corruption Is the Rule, And Honesty The Rare Exception

According to a 2012 World Bank report, 80% of the total Peruvian timber export stems from illegal logging. Legal profits from timber sales amount a yearly average of 31.7 million dollars. But the revenues made by illegal loggers more than double, reaching a yearly average of 70 million dollars. In 2o12, the Peruvian state reported that an annual loss of 250 million dollars was due to illegal logging. Surprisingly, the apathy from Amazonian officials has extended all the way to Lima. Peruvian president Ollanta Humala and his ministers also seem manipulated by the interests of timber barons.

Corruption is spread like wildfire. Potential whistleblowers were either forced into silence or to accept the corrupting influence of the rest. Under the corruption spell, hypocrisy and deceit prevail, while honesty and truth are shunned.

The native population remained honest because they followed their community values. Their living code opposes the capitalist principles of self-interest, greed and competition. Natives were also immune to the corrupting influence of money: they simply did not need it. Relying on their self-reliance, they sustained themselves by agriculture, hunting, and fishing provided by their natural environment.

Image Source: Forumdiversity

Is Our Furniture Tainted With Blood?

The criminal industry continues because there is a heavy demand for timber. The biggest importers of timber are the United States and China. Indigenous organizations have sued the U.S Department of Agriculture for allowing its importing companies to keep on funding the atrocities in the Peruvian Amazon. U.S officials have repeatedly declared to be aware of illegal logging operations. But they excused themselves by alluding to their trade agreement, which certified both countries had eradicated illegal logging. In their view, such treaty liberates them from any responsibility. Both nations hide under their legal accords stamped on paper while in real life the atrocities continue.

The US government should have stopped importing timber supplied by illegal loggers years ago, but profits and market demand seem to be the priority.

There are currently more than 22 U.S corporate businesses that indirectly fund and support the abuses against Amazonians. Why do they do this? Because the timber obtained by illegal means is cheaper than that of their competitors. Logically, there is a direct relation between the market, business competition and the bloodshed in the Amazon.

Unlike the illicit drug trade whose evils are widely known, we hardly ever wonder if our furniture or the desks we sit at may be tainted with blood. And that, in order to furnish our homes, our suppliers literally wiped out dozens of native communities in the Amazon, Central Africa, and South East Asia.

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