In a pre-dawn operation on 25 August, police and legal authorities in the Madre de Dios region arrested 17 members of an illegal ‘timber white washing’ organisation, referred to by the police as ‘the enemies of the Amazon’. It includes high-level functionaries of the regional government, the local police and employees of the national revenue service (SUNAT).

Regular readers of articles on this site will be aware that illegal logging is a chronic problem in the Peruvian Amazon and one of the main drivers of deforestation and thus global climate change. There have been a number of exposés of such practices, especially in Loreto and Ucayali regions, by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Global Witness, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the Peruvian government’s Specialist Environmental Prosecutors (FEMA), and the government’s anti-money laundering Financial Investigation Unit (UIF). But these have led neither to prosecutions, nor to any serious attempts to break up the mafias responsible. That is, until now.

The crackdown in the Madre de Dios region involved 180 police from the Division for Investigating Highly Complex Crimes (DIVIAC) plus 25 prosecutors specialised in crimes of corruption. They searched 21 locations and arrested 17 suspects. These included the current and former directors of the regional government’s forestry department, the supervisor of all the timber marketing control points, and ‘Yayita’, the well-known go-between connecting loggers and truckers with corrupt government officials. In total, 29 suspects have been identified, including regional government functionaries, officials from SUNAT, police officers, intermediaries and timber merchants.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint by Conservación Amazónica (ACCA). This is a Peruvian conservation NGO which had detected, via satellite photos, illegal logging in a private conservation reserve which it manages. It also occurred in the context of recent denunciations by the former head of SERFOR, the government’s forest protection agency, who has been unceremoniously fired in an action that has generated a storm of public criticism.

In Peru timber may only be logged on government-approved concessions following approved forest management plans which include provision for reforestation. However, government supervision of logging activities is ‘light’, to say the least.

For example, during the recent national pandemic quarantine from mid-March to the end of June all timber cutting activity was suspended. Nevertheless, when restrictions were lifted at the beginning of July, some 130 trucks were already parked in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, loaded with timber ready to take to market. According to the former SERFOR director, “it was impossible for this amount of timber to have been logged in only four days, the time between the date legal logging was allowed to recommence and the date when requests for permission to move the logs to market were received.”

As Mongabay and others have shown, criminal organisations comprising government officials, representatives of logging and transport companies and intermediaries falsify certificates attesting to the supposed legal origin of timber. They ensure the uninterrupted passage of illegally logged timber through the various checkpoints on their way to market.

It remains to be seen whether those arrested during this time in Madre de Dios will be charged, prosecuted and jailed, and whether similar operations will be carried out in other regions. In Loreto, for example, the regional government plans to generate 150,000 jobs and reactivate 169 forestry concessions by means of an investment of 13 million soles. To achieve this, It will make use of an emergency measure that exempts concessions from inspection till the end of the year.