Fake legal logging in the Brazilian Amazon

Tropical forests have been one of the main foci of the international environmental movement because of their importance in regulating climate and protecting biodiversity and because of the high rates of deforestation and degradation observed in recent decades (1, 2).

The Brazilian Amazon—the largest tropical forest worldwide—has become a global model for developing solutions to safeguard tropical forests (3) through creation of large protected areas (4), enforcement of environmental legislation (5), interventions in the soy and cattle supply chains (6), use of advanced technologies to monitoring deforestation by PRODES (Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Project) (7), and establishment of large logging concessions on public lands threatened by forest encroachment (8). Together, these strategies have worked to reduce deforestation rates by 76% from 2004 to 2017 (9). Illegal logging affects as much area as deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (10, 11) and is another major threat to biodiversity conservation in the region, as well as a catalyst for further degradation (12, 13). The effectiveness of policy interventions to prevent illegal logging in the Amazon, however, is less known and difficult to measure. Remote sensing technologies have been developed to identify areas of illegal logging (14) and some obvious irregularities in authorized management plans (15), but no alternative is available for large-scale assessments of more subtle noncompliance with logging permits, such as deliberate overestimation of high-value timber species inventories.

Illegal logging is a huge barrier for using timber markets to promote sustainable use and conservation of forests. Forty-four percent (46,149 ha) of all tropical timber harvested between 2015 and 2016 in Pará—the largest timber production state in the Brazilian Amazon—was illegal (15). In an attempt to minimize illegal logging, the Brazilian government established a public forest concession system in 2006, which created opportunities for private entrepreneurs and communities to harvest timber on 23,844 km2 of public forest land (16). On private landholdings, timber harvesting is regulated by specific legislation and by IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis), the federal environmental agency. For mechanized logging, permits have to respect a maximum of 30 m3 ha−1 timber yield in harvesting cycles of 25 to 35 years and a minimum felling diameter at breast height (DBH) of 50 cm (except when a specific DBH is assigned for a given species) and to retain commercial-size seed trees (at least 10% of large trees with commercial DBH in the area or three trees per 100 ha, whichever rule is more restrictive) (17). Legal timber harvesting, transportation, processing, and trading are tracked through the Document of Forest Origin (that is, paperwork formally required in each of these steps), which should, in theory, prevent fraud. Operationalizing this control system, however, has been problematic. The Pará state environmental agency has 55 forest officers to analyze, audit, and approve forest management applications in the 1.24-million-km2 state (almost the size of Peru). The mismatch between the current staffing and the area of forest being logged prevents field checking of logging permits—an invitation for fraud and corruption. Remote monitoring and case studies suggest that various forms of fraud contribute to the continued prevalence of illegal logging (15, 18). We investigated the potential role of one such form of fraud (that is, deliberate overestimation of high-value timber populations) in facilitating extraction and sale of illegal timber.

We evaluated evidence of fraud in the timber industry in the Brazilian Amazon based on the discrepancy between the estimated timber volumes in plots established by the government in undisturbed forests and the volumes of approved logging permits, as well as field assessments of six logged areas. We focused our analysis on Pará, eastern Amazon—the main timber production and export state. First, we integrated data of 427 valid logging permits issued from 2012 to 2017 in Pará, with 426 1-ha plots surveyed through the national forest inventory of Brazil (hereafter referred to as RADAM plots) (19) distributed across Pará state (fig. S1). From a total of 80 potential species, we selected 11 species or species groups (2 or 3 species sold with the same commercial name) with at least 50 observations in both logging permits and RADAM plots for comparison. These species represented a range of wood values and accounted for a total of 2.8 million m3 of timber, 482,682 trees, and more than US$52 million of licensed timber (table S1). Discrepancy analyses were complemented by post-logging field assessments of six logging permits in western Pará accounting for a forest management area of 671,954 ha, in which the timber volume of ipê species (Handroanthus spp.) intended to be harvested in forest management area was much higher (>4 m3 ha−1) than those observed in RADAM plots (0.7 m3 ha−1).

  1. Pedro H. S. Brancalion1,*,
  2. Danilo R. A. de Almeida1,
  3. Edson Vidal1,
  4. Paulo G. Molin2,
  5. Vanessa E. Sontag1,
  6. Saulo E. X. F. Souza1 and
  7. Mark D. Schulze3

  1. 1Department of Forest Sciences, Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, University of São Paulo, Av. Pádua Dias, 11, Piracicaba, São Paulo 13418-900, PO Box 9, Brazil.

  2. 2Federal University of São Carlos, Center of Nature Sciences, Rua Serafim Libaneo, 04, Campina do Monte Alegre, São Paulo 18245-970, PO Box 64, Brazil.

  3. 3HJ Andrews Experimental Forest and Oregon State University, PO Box 300, Blue River, OR 97413, USA.
  1. *Corresponding author. Email: pedrob@usp.br

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Science Advances  15 Aug 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat1192
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat1192



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