Greenpeace uncovers evidence that illegally logged timber is being sold on to buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China

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Sawmill in the middle of the forest, close to the river Curu do Sul, Para State. Photograph: Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace

Illegally logged timber in Brazil is being laundered on a massive and growing scale and then sold on to unwitting buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China, Greenpeace claimed on Thursday 15 May.

After a two-year investigation, the environmental campaign group says it has uncovered evidence of systematic abuse and a flawed monitoring system that contradicts the Brazilian government’s claims to be coping with the problem of deforestation in the Amazon.

In a report released on Thursday 15 May, Greenpeace cited five case studies of the fraudulent techniques used by the log launderers, including over-reporting the number and size of rare trees, logging trees protected by law, and over-extraction. It notes how forest management officials are implicated in the wrongdoing and several have previously been fined or detained for similar crimes in the past.

Far more than half of the wood from the two biggest timber producing regions of Brazil probably comes from illegal sources, it says, citing figures from the Brazilian environmental research NGO, Imazon, that 78% of the wood shipped from the vast Amazonian state of Pará is illegally felled, while the figure is 54% in Mato Grosso.

“Logging in the Brazilian Amazon is absolutely out of control. The current control system is being used to launder illegal timber,” said Marcio Astrini, a campaigner who was part of the two-year investigation.

Widespread abuse of the current regulations for timber extraction allow illegal loggers to acquire dubiously obtained credits, according to environmental campaigners and federal prosecutors.

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Some landowners may obtain surplus credits, which are sold and used for laundering illegal timber. Photograph: Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace

With little oversight, big landowners obtain permission to cut down more trees than they intend to log and then sell on unused credits to lumber mills and other farmers.

The investigation is likely to increase pressure on the government to tighten its monitoring and certification systems to minimize the damage done to the Amazon, the world’s biggest forest.

Logging is often the first step towards deforestation. The extraction of the most valuable trees, such as Apé, reduces canopy cover and opens up paths into the forest that are often later used to start fires for illegal land clearance.

Estimates of the scale of the problem are based on satellite date analysis by Imazon. Using publicly available images, the organization traces the degree of degradation of key areas in the Amazon, estimates the amount of timber felled in unauthorized areas and then compares this with official figures for timber sales.

According to Paulo Barreto of Imazon, the situation is rapidly getting worse. He says the area illegally logged increased by 151% in Pará and by 63% in Mato Grosso between 2011 and 2012.

Greenpeace says this data and the findings of their investigation point to alarming gaps in the government’s control system.

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A rainforest in Para state, Brazil, showing bright yellow Ipe tree blossom. Greenpeace alleges that UK high street building supply chain Jewson has been selling Ipe wood from Para state without being able to show the documents that prove it is legal. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace