An environmental group has accused Peru’s government of cutting short the term of its top forestry official because his agency charged with protecting the country’s Amazon forest from timber traffickers was cracking down on the illegal export of wood to the United States and Mexico. The official’s removal came after stepped up enforcement efforts were met with a backlash from businesses and politicians, highlighting the difficulties faced by those who combat the high profit, low risk eco-trafficking industry in Latin America.

Mexican news organization Proceso reported that in January the Peruvian government removed the Supervisory Organism for Forestry Resources and Wildlife’s (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales y de Fauna Silvestre—OSINFOR) director, Rolando Navarro. Navarro’s removal followed complaints from Mexican and Peruvian businesses involved in the commercialization of wood that claimed OSINFOR enforcement was costing them large sums of money. Politicians in Lima chastised the agency for sullying Peru’s image and exposing the country to potential US sanctions under existing trade agreements.

“This obviously is an attempt to weaken OSINFOR and lower its profile,” Julia Urrunaga, Peru director for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), reportedly told Proceso. The EIA is an international, non-governmental organization dedicated to investigating and exposing environmental crime.

What makes this story remarkable is that timber trafficking regulations were being enforced at all; most environmental crime goes unreported and unpunished in Latin America.

Low Risk, High Profit

Global eco-traffic is worth $142 billion a year according to a 2014 report from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC), with illicit timber accounting for $100 billion, illicit fishing for $23 billion and other forms of wildlife bringing in $19 billion a year.

Jorge Rios, chief of the Global Program for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told InSight Crime that illegal timber also accounts for a lion’s share of eco-traffic in Latin America, followed by illegal commerce of birds and small reptiles. Compared to other forms of organized crime in the region, Rios said in a telephone interview, eco-trafficking is “the most lucrative, with the least risk.”

Rios noted that law enforcement officials and prosecutors simply do not have the technical knowledge to effectively investigate or prosecute cases. He said law enforcement is also hampered by their lack of resources and lack of presence in the remote areas where eco-trafficking occurs. Rios said Latin America’s courts are also ill-equipped to address this type of crime, noting that even with sufficient laws on the books “you still have to get tried, convicted, sentenced, and that is where the issues exist.”

Risk is further reduced by the fact that legal penalties for eco-trafficking in Latin America are much lower than for other types of organized crime. Maximum sentences for drug trafficking in the region are at least 10 years higher than maximum penalties for eco-trafficking, and in some cases eco-traffickers face only a fine. (See InSight Crime chart below)

Eco-TraffickingDrug Trafficking
Costa Rica

1 month – 2 years detention OR a fine of $18.71 – $187

 8 – 15 years detention
Brazil1 – 3 years detention OR a fine (amount undefined) 5 – 15 years detention
Peru 3 – 5 years detention and a fine of 180 – 400 days of ways (amount paid depends on individual’s income) 8 – 15 years detention
Colombia 2 – 5 years detention and a fine up to 10,000 minimum wages 10.7 – 30 years detention
Ecuador 1 – 3 years detention and a fine of 500 – 1000 minimum wages 12 – 16 years detention
Bolivia Up to 2 years detention and a fine equal to the value of the goods trafficked 10 – 25 years detention

In a 2014 interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo, Bernardo Ortiz, South America director for the organization TRAFFIC, noted that current sentencing guidelines offer eco-traffickers little disincentive. “The penalties are minimal,” Ortiz said. “Nobody goes to prison for selling wild animals.”

In the rare cases that traffickers are convicted, the cost is low compared to potential profits. A Mexican man was sentenced this year by Ecuador to two years in prison and assessed a $20,000 fine for attempting to take 11 iguanas from the Galapagos Islands. These unique creatures are protected and considered to be vulnerable to extinction. In 2007, a California man who was caught smuggling similarly protected iguanas from Fiji in his prosthetic leg told an undercover agent that he had sold iguanas for more than $10,000 apiece, the BBC reported.

While environmental crime most obviously affects natural resources and habitats, GITOC says it also can fund conflict, weaken the rule of law and decrease people’s access to safe drinking water, food sources and shelter. GITOC also notes that eco-trafficking is often connected with money laundering because traffickers must process their illicit income. The eco-traffickers converge along transportation routes and at border crossings with other elements of organized crime because all of these groups look for areas with poor enforcement and the presence of corrupt officials who will ensure safe passage of contraband.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

“At the highest levels, state officials complicit with international corporations and national big business sell permits, land and extraction rights to individuals and companies based on the level of the kick-back rather than the merit of the tender, or distribute them as gifts amongst favored cronies,” GITOC reported.

The EIA’s Urrunaga said official involvement went beyond Peruvian politicians thwarting enforcement efforts. She noted that traffic in illegal wood from the Peruvian Amazon was necessarily facilitated by false documentation approved by government agents.

At lower levels, officials are also complicit in trafficking. In one case Ortiz mentioned in his interview with El Tiempo, Colombian police seized tortoises and their eggs from a group of farmers. Instead of keeping the evidence, they split up the seized materials to eat at home.

Multi-pronged Approaches Needed

Environmentalists note that a long term solution to the eco-trafficking problem has to involve changing the attitudes of people involved in or affected by the practice — from local communities who provide flora and fauna, to middle men who transport the goods, to the end-users who purchase the products.

“Penalties need to be sufficiently severe to be in the deterrent range, but changing people’s attitudes so you don’t get into the situation where crimes are being committed in the first place is a preferable — albeit difficult to achieve — alternative,” said Dr. Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC. “Currently, behavior change efforts are targeted at the end-users[…] because if you persuade them not to buy, the market collapses.”

Experts note that it is also important to create economic alternatives for local communities who derive their income from these illegal practices. “It is critical to provide them livelihoods,” Rios said, “and we have to recognize that this isn’t just about ecotourism, it is about broad scale rural development.”

[i.] Sources for punishments regarding eco-trafficking and drug trafficking crimes in Latin American countries:

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