Recent seizures of illegally sourced wood in Panama have highlighted the important role the country plays the international timber trade, due to both its strategic geographical position and valuable species of trees on its territory.
On March 28 and 31, Panamanian police seized two containers at ports in the northern city of Colón, carrying a species of local wood, known as cocobolo, on their way to China. Jointly, the two containers held around 850 pieces of cocobolo wood, also named Dalbergia retusa.
Cocobolo trees, related to the rosewood, are prized internationally for use in making expensive carpentry, as well as custom knife handles and gunstocks. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this wood sold for between $3,000 and $4,000 a ton, according to Panamanian newspaper, Critica.
Panamanian authorities have seen an alarming number of seizures of cocobolo for years, mostly bound for China. Back in 2014, InSight Crime reported on millions of dollars worth of the wood being caught along the Panama Canal. This accompanied a rise in legal exports, which increased by 52 percent from 2015 to 2018, although this then dropped through 2019 and 2020.
Most timber trafficking in Panama takes place in its southern province of Darién, along its border with Colombia. The country's Environment Ministry recently estimated that 20 percent of Darién's forest cover has been removed in the last seven years.
InSight Crime Analysis
Panama is facing a war on two fronts, trying to stop deforestation of its cocobolo trees and seizing illegal timber shipments at both ends of the Panama Canal.
While most of its deforestation takes place in Darién, other areas in eastern Panama have seen the illegal felling of cocobolo, balsam and Nazarene wood. The government has sought to crack down on this trade at the source. Throughout 2021, controls along roads in and out of deforestation hotspots have seen trucks stopped while carrying loads of cocobolo out of Panamanian forests.
The environment ministry has launched an ambitious reforestation program but this has been criticized for being too focused on the south of the country. In 2020, Panama's forestry director, Víctor Francisco Cadavid, told La Estrella de Panama, that "while we have been focused on a single area, they have been taking what is valuable from our forests through the back door."
Meanwhile, Indigenous communities in Darién have taken matters into their own hands, establishing an effective monitoring program, starting their own reforestation system, using drones to spot and report illegal loggers and even tracking how numbers of specific bird species have fallen to document deforestation.
At Panama's ports, among the busiest in the region, Panama is struggling to rein in multiple criminal economies. Due to the Panama Canal and its location connecting Colombia to Central America, Panama is a network hub for the drugs trade, arms trafficking and human smuggling. Corruption and complicity among government officials has been growing, with Army, police, Panama Canal and port staff all implicated in recent years.
And while illegal logging may seem like a lesser priority compared to these more lucrative criminal economies, there has been strong evidence that timber traffickers benefit from strong connections inside ports facilitating their trade.