Officials within the agency entrusted with protecting Bolivia's forests falsified data and provided documents legitimizing the illegal harvesting of timber, a scheme that occurs throughout South America.
René Noel Sivila Céspedes is accused of signing more than 2,096 documents that allowed for the clearing of protected areas while he was the head of a forest and land operation unit from 2015 to 2018, Pagina Siete Reported.
Céspedes' unit oversaw a reserve of some 80,000 hectares in San Ignacio de Velasco, located within Santa Cruz department near Bolivia's border with Brazil. Illegal logging occurred on nearly a quarter of the reserve, composed of Amazon rainforest and swamps, Los Tiempos reported.
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One trafficker, according to authorities, filled 396 trucks with illegal wood using falsified certificates and stamps of approval obtained from officials within the Forest and Land Authority (Autoridad de Bosques y Tierra -- ABT), Pagina Siete reported.
Records were then altered, artificially inflating the number of trees in the area to hide the destruction of the forest. The officials involved in the scheme charged $300 per certificate and helped traffickers avoid inspections and checkpoints.
A 2018 report from the ABT found that the agency had authorized the logging of two types of protected trees far above the amounts permitted by law. Officials of the agency admitted that some agents were acting alongside criminals to allow trees to be cut down.
In the first six months of this year, more than 6,020 cubic meters (.6 hectares) of illegal timber has been confiscated by the ABT, according to La Prensa. This illegal wood is valued at over $550,000.
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The pilfering of a Bolivian reserve under the guise of legitimate timber extraction provides yet another example of how corrupt forestry officials often hold the keys to this criminal economy.
In this case, local residents were aware of the illegal logging and complained to authorities. Yet Céspedes remained in his position and was only docked 20 percent of his salary, according to Pagina Siete.
Such light punishment is commonplace when it comes to such crimes, even when loggers earn massive profits from the export of illegal wood.
Timber traffickers in other countries have employed similar methods.
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In Peru, a network of corrupt officials within regional forestry directorates facilitates the illegal timber trade. Documents are cloned and then used to legitimize illegally harvested wood.
An estimated 80 percent of the wood harvested in Peru and Bolivia is believed to be illegal, according to a 2016 report by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, an NGO composed of forest scientists. The report also found that the problem is endemic in Ecuador, where 70 percent of timber harvesting is done illegally.
Other countries in South America also struggle to combat the trade. In Brazil, nearly half of wood harvested is believed to be illegal, and 42 percent of wood in Colombia comes from illicit sources, according to the report.