Rare trees are disappearing as ‘wood pirates’ log Bolivian national parks
SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — “The day after tomorrow, a cargo of 8,000 board feet of timber must be shipped. As there is little water, they are waiting for the rain. It’s all piled up in the San Salvador area,” says the former logger. He’s referring to a shipment of mara wood (Swietenia macrophylla), extracted by so-called wood pirates who cut down these trees in Amboro National Park in central Bolivia.
Hidden in the thickets of the Amazon rainforest, these gigantic trees, also known as big-leaf mahogany, grow up to 50 meters (165 feet) tall and live more than 100 years. Yet for many, their days are numbered, the roar of chainsaws marking their time of death at the hands of the wood pirates.
The export of mara wood from Bolivia has been prohibited since 2011. That decision was made by the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Authority, part of the Bolivian Ministry of Environment. Mara is currently listed in Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), so cross-border trade in the wood is strictly regulated in other countries. The species is also classified as vulnerable on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The former logger, who was betrayed by his comrades and briefly imprisoned, agreed to talk to Mongabay about this criminal enterprise. His only condition was that his identity be concealed.
“About seven groups are operating in the park. Each one consists of six to eight people,” he told Mongabay during the November 2019 interview. “These days, they are cutting a lot. They are planning to extract a large amount for Christmas. My role was to be a lomeador and a callapero; I would bring the wood from the forest and then transport it along the river.”
The logger says the criminal groups enter the park armed and are willing to do anything to achieve their mission — including killing anyone who stands in their way.
An organized mafia
Sergio Yepez, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol’s illegal logging group, says these kinds of logging operations are run by organized crime syndicates.
“This is not a person who has been spontaneously arrested for cutting down a tree,” Yepez said. “There is a whole structure [and] organization and funding sources behind these groups.”
According to Interpol’s 2010 Chainsaw Project report, illegal logging encompasses a wide range of illegal activities that require a significant amount of organization. “The harvesting, shipping, processing and trading of timber is more likely to be coordinated by a network of criminals, rather than one isolated individual,” the report says.
For this reason, since January 2019, Interpol has categorized illegal logging as organized crime. “Sentences and penalties must be applied in that manner, as well as in-depth investigative work,” Yepez said.
According to the former logger, the criminal logging groups operating in Amboro National Park are organized into distinct roles:
- Cutters are in charge of sawing down the trees. They are paid 1 boliviano, about 14 U.S. cents, per foot of cut wood. They can extract between 2,000 and 5,000 board feet (about 5 to 8 cubic meters) for one shipment, earning a profit of up to 5,000 bolivianos ($724).
- Lomeadores carry the planks of sawed mara, each weighing about 60 kilograms (132 pounds), on their backs to the riverbanks. They carry each load up to 3 kilometers (around 2 miles) along narrow and rugged paths over mountains and through canyons. Lomeadores are paid 1 boliviano per foot of wood per kilometer. They can transport between 200 and 500 board feet of wood per day.
- Callaperos, armed with rifles, lower the wood into precarious boats called callapos. They operate along the Yapacani, Ichilo and Mataracu rivers inside Amboro National Park. Each trip takes them a minimum of three days. With each load, they can transport up to 150 planks of mara, and each callapero can earn 4,000 bolivianos ($580). If they are alerted to the presence of rangers, the callaperos submerge the wood in the river with stones and wait several days until they believe the risk of getting caught has passed. Many callaperos have drowned.
- Suppliers deliver provisions to logging groups operating in the park. Instead of carrying meat with them from outside, they hunt and fish inside the park. They also carry other supplies, such as gasoline tanks, motor oil, ropes to tie the callapos, and camping materials. They are paid 200 bolivianos ($29) per day and must hike through the forest for at least two days to reach the camps.
- Drivers meet the callaperos and transport the extracted wood further along the supply chain. They operate at night, loading the wood onto their trucks and camouflaging it under cargoes of other goods like rice, bananas or citrus fruits to deceive authorities operating control checkpoints along the route. They are paid up to 700 bolivianos ($100) to move the wood from the rivers in Amboro to warehouses in the cities of Yapacani or Santa Fe, and between 1,200 and 1,500 bolivianos ($174 to $217) to transport it on from Yapacani to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
- Spies alert the loggers when they see rangers or other athorities entering nearby areas of the park. Once alerted, the loggers hide in the forest and wait until the coast is clear. They use drones in their surveillance.
- Buyers finance the logging activities. They operate in the town of Yapacani just outside the park’s border. Some pay in advance. “Right now, there are around five [buyers],” the logger said. “One of the buyers is also planting coca inside Amboro National Park.”
Each group of wood pirates leaves a distinctive mark on the mara trees they intend to cut down. It’s their way of alerting other groups to leave their trees alone. And if they don’t? “Over the bank of the Colorado River [in Amboro] there is a cross,” the former logger said. “That’s where they shot a pirate who cut down a tree from another group.”
Wood pirates operate during the rainy season, when the rivers swell and make it easier to transport the timber. According to the former logger, it takes three weeks to a month to extract a shipment of illegal timber from Amboro National Park. “A cargo of 4,000 board feet can be extracted in three weeks; in one month, up to 7,000 board feet can be removed.”
The best wood is carefully selected and transported by train across the border to Corumba, Brazil, from where it is shipped on to China and the U.S. The remaining wood is sold for furniture production via the local black market in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
An unequal war
According to the former logger, wood pirates are aided by corruption. “There are some corrupt authorities who warn the pirates of the dates of operations and controls,” he said, adding that leaders of several communities near Amboro are also under mafia control: “Some know about the departure of cargoes, but they don’t report it to the authorities.”
Roman Vitron, an environmental engineer who has been involved in 10 timber seizure operations in Bolivia since 2014, says people are attracted to this clandestine activity by the big profits. “The amounts of money these people make represent more than they [otherwise] would earn in a month,” he said.
Vitron says the price of mara on the black market is 15 to 16 bolivianos ($2.20 to 2.30) per board foot. This means that for every illegal shipment of 2,000 to 5,000 board feet, traffickers are earning 30,000 to 80,000 bolivianos ($4,340 to $11,580).
Vitron, who considers himself a fierce environmentalist, has followed the tracks of illegal loggers while working for the municipality of nearby San Carlos and for the Amboro National Park Authority. “They are [logging] up to 15 kilometers [past] the red line that designates the national park boundary where it is a strict conservation zone,” Vitron said. “They walk up to three days along the riverbanks carrying food and fuel; they also have to cross swamps. These people make quite the journey.”
More than 560 km (350 mi) northwest of Amboro, in the region of La Paz, is Madidi National Park. Considered one of the most biodiverse natural areas in the world, Madidi is home to more than 10% of the planet’s bird species and an estimated 10,000 different kinds of butterflies and moths, with frequent discoveries of species new to science. Both parks are in the Amboro-Madidi Biological Corridor, which has high ecological value and is part of the larger Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot.
Like Amboro, Madidi National Park is plagued by illegal logging.
“If we meet again, you’re going to disappear.” Those were the words Madidi ranger Diego Aliaga said a logger threatened him with while Aliaga was patrolling the forests near San Fermin, a community of 65 families located at the western edge of Madidi National Park.
San Fermin sits on the banks of the Tambopata River and on the border with Peru. According to Madidi’s rangers, the closest Bolivian community, Asariamas, in the municipality of Apolo, is a four-day walk away, so many inhabitants buy food across the border in Peru, in the district of San Pedro de Putina Punco. Park authorities say wood traffickers in the San Fermin area also do their business across the border, logging mara trees in Madidi National Park and then transporting them by river to Peru, where the wood is sold for 8 soles ($2.40) per board foot. In the past, buyers used a loophole in Peruvian legislation to bring the wood into the country only with transport permits, arguing to the authorities that the logging was done in Bolivia.
Marcos Uzquiano, director of Madidi National Park, said park rangers working in this community were constantly attacked and threatened by locals.
“They have always had an aggressive attitude,” Uzquiano said. “One time, all the park signs were thrown away. Also, they did not allow controls [raids] to be carried out and demanded that the confiscated chainsaws and wood be returned to them. It has been really complicated.”
According to Aliaga, illegal loggers have extracted most of the accessible mara trees from the banks of the Colorado River, which flows into the Tambopata River. Now they are exploiting trees in the basin of the Colorado River itself, one of the areas that anthropologists say is home to the Toromonas, one of Bolivia’s uncontacted tribes.
“Illegal loggers and drug trafficking groups are clearing bush inside the rainforest where it is thought the uncontacted tribes live,” Aliaga said. “There is a risk that they could find them and kill them since they are armed. Other rangers have found arrows and footprints that could belong to the Toromonas who live there.”
From illegal logging to coca plantations
A resident of Apolo, who asked not to be named, says that the people involved in illegal logging of valuable tree species like mara in San Fermin also grow coca and produce cocaine. ‘’They cultivated their coca plantations in the same areas where there is wood. So first they extract the wood and then they plant coca,” the resident said.
Most coca is used to produce cocaine. The plant is illegal to grow outside authorized areas in Bolivia, where it is intended for traditional use. But high coca prices and a legacy of poverty in the region have compelled a lawless culture to take hold in this part of the Bolivian Amazon.
“Last year on the riverbank they killed the brother of one of the rangers,” Uzquiano said. “There have been shootings among villagers, some people have been burned alive by drug trafficking groups. There is no justice in this place.”
The dangerous situation in San Fermin forced Uzquiano to remove his rangers from Madidi’s protection camp in the community. “My staff were constantly threatened by mafia groups,” he said. “This forced me to withdraw them and leave the place under the protection of the military.”
In 2016, the Bolivian government razed 50 hectares (124 acres) of illegal coca plantations in San Fermin and two other Madidi communities: Cocos Lanza and Colorados. But eradication efforts have since stalled.
Coca plantations have also been cultivated on the Peruvian side of the border. An October 2019 report published by InSight Crime, a foundation that investigates organized crime, noted problems that have accompanied coca cultivation in the region: “The vast increase in coca production has caused the population of the nearby San Pedro de Putina Punco district to rise from around 15,000 inhabitants to 40,000. The population boom has been accompanied by rising insecurity, including an increase of robberies and assaults.”
The protection of Madidi National Park’s 1.8 million ha (4.4 million acres) is tasked to just 26 rangers. Two of these rangers were assigned to the San Fermin protection camp before Uzquiano removed them due to safety concerns. Because of the hostility of the local population, Uzquiano says that at least four rangers are necessary to properly monitor the area and coordinate enforcement with the military. He added that other improvements are also sorely needed.
“The camps that we have are falling apart,” he said. “It is necessary to improve the infrastructure, the communication, and to improve our coordination so that the park rangers feel supported.”
San Fermin loggers transport mara planks using boats with outboard motors, which can easily outrun the authorities. “The park rangers and the military do not have the logistical means. The traffickers are ahead of us,” Uzquiano said.
Federico Barron, a ranger responsible for the protection of the northern portion of Amboro National Park, says that nine rangers are charged with defending the entire 637,600 ha (1.6 million acres) of the park.
“We have nine camps and each ranger is assigned to one,” Barron said. “That’s not viable. It’s risky to be alone.” Barron said he believes a territory Amboro’s size should be patrolled by at least 30 rangers, and the rangers should have greater support from the military.
“One time we apprehended one of the pirates, but then we were ambushed by 12 of his comrades,” he said. “There were only six of us; what were we going to do? We had to free the guy and flee the place. Thank God we made it out alive.”
Maikol Melgar, the new director of Bolivia’s National Protected Areas Service, said the agency is in the process of being restructured after damage incurred under the government of former president Evo Morales. “We are now requesting the new national government incorporate the necessary budget and increase the number of rangers for Bolivia’s protected areas,” he said.
Logging by wood pirates is just one of many forest crimes that feed Bolivia’s black market for precious woods. Those involved say pirates are aided by corrupt officials who do things like provide false documentation to mask illegally harvested timber as legal. Other problems include logging without management plans and cutting trees smaller than the legally permitted diameter, according to Interpol, which found that these challenges are compounded by illegal settlements of people in protected areas.
One of the largest cases of corruption of forestry officials in the country came to light in June 2019. Noel Sivila, a former official with the Forests and Lands Authority (ABT in Spanish), was accused of illegally handing out more than 2,000 permits to Mennonites to clear a total of 22,000 ha (54,400 acres) of forest in the municipality of San Ignacio de Velasco, located in the south-central region of the department of Santa Cruz. Sivila is now a fugitive in Argentina.
When asked about the weakness of forest controls in Bolivia, Miguel Angel Ruiz, an ABT official, said that adjustments are being made to improve the logging permit granting process and increase inspections of forest areas. “We have deficiencies in the control posts since they are not at the level they should be. They lack infrastructure. These posts are the controls from the forest to the timber markets,” Ruiz said.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol report from 2016, “The value of forestry crimes, including corporate crimes and illegal logging, is estimated at $50-152 billion per year,” and 10-30 percent of the global wood trade could be illegal. In Bolivia’s case, 258,462 ha (638,674 acres) of land were deforested in 2017, 52 percent illegally, according to data from ABT. That included 146 ha (361 acres) in Amboro National Park and 199 ha (492 acres) in Madidi National Park.
Sergio Yepez said he believes that cross-border coordination among Amazonian countries is necessary to deal with this crime.
“Interpol is pushing in the direction of achieving police, judicial and operational coordination among the countries of the Amazon basin, so that investigations can be carried out where information is difficult to obtain,” Yepez said.
But for heavily targeted, rare trees like mara, many wonder if change will come soon enough.
“The park’s mara is already running out,” says the former logger from Amboro. “It has been exploited for a long time and there are not many trees left.”