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Protected Areas: Illegal Timber Strongholds in the Bolivian Amazon

Julio Zebers, an environmentalist and volunteer firefighter, surveyed trees that still smelled of smoke.

Two weeks had passed since a blaze raced through this stand of Bolivia’s Chiquitania forest in Valle de Tucabaca, a nature reserve in Santa Cruz. A huge trunk of Almendro, a tropical hardwood, lay on the ground, freshly cut. Its outer bark was charred. But the wood inside was intact.

“This forest was burned for the wood,” Zebers explained.

He noted that the fires provide illegal loggers with access to stands of valuable hardwood located deep inside the reserve, areas that would normally be inaccessible. While these ancient trees can survive the fires, they are defenseless against the assault of teams armed with chainsaws. 

Illegal logging in Bolivia’s forests feeds both domestic and international timber demand. The extent of the black market remains unclear. However, the US-based nonprofit Forest Trends, known for its assessments of timber products’ legality on a country-by-country basis, classified Bolivia as a “higher-risk” country in its 2021 survey. This classification stems from “widespread illegal logging” and “reports of illegally harvested Bolivia timber being trafficked.”

Natural reserves are particularly susceptible to the encroachments of illegal loggers, as reported by Eduardo Franco Berton, a Bolivian environmental journalist who has investigated the illicit timber trade. Parks at risk include Madidi, Carrasco, Ambaró, and Isiboro-Sécure, all of which are adjacent to the Amazon region.

In Madidi and Ambaró, an entire trafficking network has sprung up around the pilfering of valuable mara wood (Swietenia macrophylla), also known as big-leaf mahogany. 

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The tree species – utilized in the production of luxury furniture, paneling, and musical instruments – has been classified as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. 

It has also been granted Appendix II protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), indicating that its trade must be regulated to prevent exploitation that threatens its survival. “In the 80s and 90s, there was a very high demand for legal and illegal extraction,” Berton said. 

In 2011, the head of Bolivia’s forests agency warned that the overexploitation of mara wood had left the species on the brink of disappearing. According to an investigation by Berton, first published in Mongabay, traffickers are still financing the extraction of mara wood. The pilfering requires organized crews that head deep into national parks, crossing rivers and canyons, to reach isolated stands of mara trees. 

Loggers, referred to as corteros or cutters, chop down trees that can reach up to 45 meters in height and then use buzzsaws to cut them into planks measuring 3 to 5 meters in length. Carriers, known as lomeadores, then transport these planks on their backs for up to two miles across challenging terrain. 

Once the carriers reach a river drop-off point, the timber is strung together by rope to form long rafts called callapos. The rafts carry 150 planks on perilous journeys up to three days on Amboró’s Yapacani, Ichilo, and Mataracu rivers. The trips can earn callapero sailors some $700.

Trucks then pick up the timber, bringing it to warehouses. According to Berton, to extract a shipment of mara from Amboró can take up to a month. 

The best wood is selected and smuggled to neighboring countries. From Madidi, located northwest of La Paz, the wood is moved to San Pedro de Putina Punco, Peru, while wood extracted in Amboró is moved across the long porous border between Bolivia and Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. The timber is often concealed in other truck cargo.

Timber that reaches Brazil and Peru has been exported to international markets, such as China and the United States. Lesser-quality wood feeds domestic black markets. “It’s completely structured,” Berton said. “A few family clans manage it.”

Other tree species, though less valuable than mara, are being illegally extracted. These include, among others, morado (Machaerium scleroxylon); cedrillo, or Spanish cedar (Vochysia viciifolia); tajibo (Tabebuia impetiginosa); and quinoa colorada (Myroxylon peruiferum).

Besides outright smuggling, timber traffickers insert illegal wood into the legal supply chain through doctored Forestry Origin Certificates (CFO). In 2021, the timber industry in Bolivia managed to export 143,000 tons of wood, worth about $96 million.

Clearing plans, called PDM-20s and allow for the removal of 20 hectares of forest, have been used to cover up the illegal harvesting of trees on protected or state-administered lands. Inefficiency and outright corruption in Bolivia’s forestry agency, ABT, facilitate this process. 

To cite one example, René Noel Sivila Céspedes, the head of a forestry unit that oversaw some 80,000 hectares in Santa Cruz’s San Ignacio de Velasco, allegedly received kickbacks to allow the clearing of more than a quarter of the reserve near the border with Brazil. 

During the tenure of Sivila Céspedes, approvals for PDM-20 were sold for $300 each. This led to the falsification of hundreds of forestry certificates, facilitating the laundering of lumber equivalent to approximately 400 truckloads. Between 2015 and 2018, this illegal logging network generated around $6 million.

Local sawmills owned by intercultural communities and Chinese nationals also process illegally harvested timber, according to Alex Villca Limaco, communications secretary at CONTIOCAP.

Zebers said the trees chopped down in the burnt-over forests of Valle de Tucabaca were likely meant for local housing construction, noting that it is used for internal beams and window frames. 

“There is still good wood all around here,” Zebers said. “Since there is no control, they grab trunks like these and start cutting.”


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