Robinson Lumber's perilous trade with Peru's Maderera Bozovich

06.01.2020

Buried in a report published last year was this simple fact: no other US firm was importing more high-risk wood from Peru than Robinson Lumber, one of the country’s largest tropical wood importers. Earthsight can now reveal that Robinson continues to buy from Maderera Bozovich, a Peruvian company with a long rap sheet of alleged illegalities, and which campaigners say is seeking to undermine transparency and traceability efforts in the Peruvian timber sector

The Amazon forests in Peru are the battle ground for a war being fought between environmentalists, key government agencies and the notorious logging firms that are ransacking them for valuable timber. 

At the centre of what has become an illegal logging epidemic - and the Peruvian timber industry’s efforts to strip transparency and traceability requirements - is one name: Bozovich. 

Despite being repeatedly accused over the last several years of using documents based on falsified information, and trading in illegal timber, Maderera Bozovich and its owners have continued a largely business-as-usual timber export operation, spurred on by demand from the EU and US.

A new investigation by Earthsight shows that US firm, Louisiana-based Robinson Lumber, remains among Bozovich’s top US clients, despite a wealth of evidence of wrongdoing by the Peruvian supplier. 

Though this timber is marked as originating from concessions certified as being legally and sustainably managed by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), the value of this label is uncertain in Peru, given the sophisticated laundering of illegal timber which is known to occur, and given the ease with which its systems allow bad actors to switch bad for good wood. 

Timber laundering in Peru: a growing problem 

Peru is the fourth-largest rainforest country in the world, and one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. It is home to thousands of indigenous communities, who have close economic and cultural ties to the forest. Its tropical forests contain more carbon than the US emits in a year. 

When Brazil banned exports of mahogany in 2001, Peru’s forests became the main source of this timber in global markets. Illegal logging was widespread, and populations of these valuable trees began to decline. 

After increased protections on trade in mahogany were put in place, the timber industry shifted its attention to other species such as cumaru (Braziian teak), Spanish cedar and cumala. These are valued, variously, for their use in construction, and in making expensive flooring and high-end furniture. 

Illegal logging in Peru today is systematic, with criminal networks working in collusion with state actors. It is being facilitated by what NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has called ‘an enormous no-questions-asked demand for tropical timber from global markets.’ 

This crisis is costing the Peruvian government $250 million dollars each year- 1.5 times the value of legitimate Peruvian timber exports - and has contributed to Peru currently having the highest annual deforestation rates of any country in the Andean Amazon. 

Several studies have estimated that 70 per cent to 90 per cent of all timber harvested in Peru is illegal. Inspections carried out by OSINFOR, Peru’s forest oversight agency, between 2009 and 2016 have similarly revealed staggering levels of illegality of around 80 per cent. 

The timber industry, often in collusion with corrupt public officials, has a documented history of falsifying key documents to launder illegal timber harvested from unauthorised areas. EIA, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Global Witness have analysed thousands of Forest Transport Permits (GTFs - documents which accompany timber from harvest to the point of export) over the years and reported extensively on how exporters have used official documents to give illegal timber the appearance of legality. 

Another common practice is to declare fake tree locations on Annual Operating Plans (POAs- documents that give information on trees slated for felling) and illegally fell trees elsewhere. Activists who oppose illegal practices do so at great personal cost; late last year timber industry executives were charged with the murders of four indigenous activists who had urged prosecutors to take stronger action against illegal loggers. 

In 2015 a joint enforcement effort by OSINFOR and SUNAT – Peru’s customs agency - uncovered overwhelming rates of illegality in timber shipments from the Amazon port of Iquitos. It was revealed that an average of 91 per cent of the timber shipped by a single timber carrier by the name of Yacu Kallpa on its trips to the US, Mexico and the Dominican Republic that year was from illegal sources. 

Laura Furones from Global Witness Peru’s Forest Team told Timberleaks, “As amply shown by Peru’s environmental enforcement body OSINFOR over the years, what is written on transport permits about the legal origin of timber is no guarantee the timber in fact came from there. 

Quite the opposite, OSINFOR have found that in the majority of harvest areas they’ve inspected in places like Loreto and Ucayali, the timber was not harvested there, but transport permits were used to make it appear as if it was. This is the widespread phenomenon known as “timber laundering” – and many companies use that method to legalise what would otherwise be illegal timber.”

Dante Zevallos, former General Manager of the company Sico Maderas that was implicated in the Yacu Kallpa scandal, explains how timber is illegally laundered through the use of transport permits while meeting with Global Witness undercover investigators.

Instead of clamping down on illegality, some Peruvian officials have defended illegal shipments to the US by claiming exporters did not know the timber was illegal and that they had acted in “good faith.” 

Meanwhile, customs and environmental bodies, formerly the last bastion in the fight against illegal logging, were stripped of powers by their government and have been unable to carry out the checks necessary to ensure timber is harvested and traded legally.

Roland Navarro, the dynamic head of OSINFOR who had led the organisation during one of its most active and successful periods when it carried out numerous inspections and worked closely with the national customs agency to stamp out illegalities in the timber sector, was removed from office in the aftermath of the Yacu Kallpa case. 

According to the Associated Press, after his dismissal in January 2016, inspections to detect illegal timber harvesting were scaled back, prosecutions barely advanced and officials who had signed fraudulent logging permits remained in their jobs.

The Yacu Kallpa has become one of the most notorious examples of timber laundering in Latin American history. It led to detentions and seizures in multiple countries and to one of the Peruvian exporters involved, Inversiones La Oroza, being temporarily blocked from exporting to the US. But while attention focused on that case, another major player in Peru not involved in it was able to fly under the radar- Maderera Bozovich. 

The Peruvian firm at the heart of the crisis

Maderera Bozovich SAC is Peru’s largest wood exporter. EIA has alleged that the “company’s fortunes rose with the plunder of mahogany that took place throughout the Peruvian Amazon in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” It manufactures flooring, decking, plywood, MDF planks, doors, pallets and other timber products made of a variety of tropical species, including Cumaru, Ipe, Mahogany, Cedar, Angelim, Andiroba, Cumala, Jatoba and Sapele.

In Peru, Bozovich controls timber concessions in the Amazon regions of Ucayali and Madre de Dios. It has also been known to source timber from several other producers in the country, including from notorious suppliers such as Inversiones La Oroza, which was banned from exporting to the US following the Yacu Kallpa investigation, and from regions with high rates of illegal logging such as Ucayali and Loreto.

The company’s reputation has long been tainted by allegations of trading in wood connected to major illegalities. According to environmental campaigners, it has also had considerable behind-the-scenes influence on efforts to undermine environmental law enforcement and transparency in Peru.

Investigations by EIA showed that Bozovich is Peru’s largest exporter of wood of questionable – and likely illegal - origin; in 2012 and again in 2018, of all the major timber companies analysed by the NGO, Bozovich had the highest number of Forest Transport Permits (GTFs) affiliated with areas where illegal logging was confirmed as having occurred by OSINFOR. GTFs are a crucial document for timber traceability in Peru, as they accompany timber from the place of harvest through the sawmill to the point of sale or export. 

They are meant to allow stakeholders to verify the legality of timber by linking it to specific logging permits.

According to the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), it is clear that Maderera Bozovich and other exporters engaged in a number of malpractices, such as omitting information that allows traceability (for example, the timber harvest season) or deliberately using documentation from harvest areas not subjected to inspections by OSINFOR.

Timberleaks has also found that local officials who had signed off on the GTFs Bozovich used to export timber in 2015 have since been convicted for illegal logging or been dismissed from office and placed on sanctions lists.

There are credible suspicions that Peruvian companies such as Bozovich may be discriminating among documentation characteristics based on the country importing the timber, using publicly available transparency tools set up to combat illegalities to select ‘legal’ timber destined for the US, a country with strict laws prohibiting imports of illegal timber, while channelling higher volumes of potentially illegal wood to countries without such laws.

An analysis of 2015 Peruvian timber exports carried out by CIEL found that almost one-third of Bozovich’s exports to the US were of wood from harvest areas with verified illegal logging and/or timber laundering. The company exported even higher levels of potentially illegal wood to Mexico (65 per cent), China (50 per cent) and the Dominican Republic (31 per cent).

Research conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) based on the same data revealed that 38 per cent of Bozovich’s total exports in 2015 were of high risk. An earlier investigation by EIA alleged that, for the 2008-2010 period, 45 per cent of the company’s shipments of endangered species such as mahogany and Spanish cedar to the US included wood of illegal origin.

Bozovich was also recently implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, accused of using complex networks of companies registered in offshore tax havens, including a company named ‘Foaming Sea Ltd,’ which carried a valid FSC ‘sustainability’ certificate at the time of writing, to carry out secret transactions, safe from the eyes of Peruvian tax authorities.

Following the Yacu Kallpa case, in 2016 Peru agreed with the US (as part of its obligations under a free trade agreement aimed, among other things, at removing obstacles to trade in timber between the two countries) to strengthen timber traceability by amending export documentation (known as DAMs), in order to allow the customs agency (SUNAT) and importers to have easier access to information about the timber’s place of origin and harvest season. 

SUNAT felt it would be important for the DAMs to name the species being exported and clearly link each GTF to specific logging contracts and annual harvest plans.

However, industry bodies the Association of Exporters (ADEX) and the National Society of Industries (SNI), joined forces with SERFOR - the National Wildlife Service - to block the customs agency’s efforts to improve traceability.

ADEX and SNI have said that “it is not feasible to associate a load of export timber to one or more GTFs” and that “it is impossible to conduct traceability from the product to be exported to the logging contract (point of harvest) or vice versa.” As a result, the promised reforms did not materialise.

Julia Urrunaga, EIA’s Director of Peru’s Programs, told Timberleaks, “These associations have considerable influence on government policy. But when ADEX or SNI come out defending the timber sector and saying they’re worried about how the sector is treated, it’s really Bozovich doing that”. 

For Urrunaga, the picture is clear: “Bozovich runs the show here,” she told Earthsight. 

Robinson Lumber's dangerous bet on Bozovich 

As this research shows, Bozovich has gained a terrible reputation for a range of suspect practices in Peru. Yet Louisiana-based Robinson Lumber Company has persisted in ignoring all these warnings, and continues to buy timber from the firm. In fact, according to Earthsight research, Robinson Lumber is by far the most important Bozovich customer in the US, after Bozovich’s own subsidiary in the country. Almost 30 per cent of Bozovich’s exports to the US between July 2017 and September 2019 were destined for Robinson Lumber- timber valued at approximately $1.3 million.

The riskiness of Robinson’s Peruvian imports has already been highlighted – though one could be excused for not having noticed. Buried in a damning report on illegality in the Peruvian timber sector published by EIA in 2018 is a table of US importers. 

Using government data from 2015 (the most recent available), EIA assessed how likely it was that each firm’s imports were of illegal origin. None had received more ‘high-risk’ shipments than Robinson. Eighteen of the twenty-two timber transport permits associated with shipments to the firm that year from Callao port in Peru were judged by EIA to be high-risk, while one additional permit related to a point of harvest actually confirmed by government to have falsified data.

Shipment records obtained by Earthsight, meanwhile, indicate that the only Peruvian firm Robinson bought wood from that year was Bozovich.

Importers of low, mid and high-risk timber to the US identified in the EIA report Moment of Truth, 2019. Credit: EIA

Robinson has continued to buy regularly from Bozovich since EIA’s latest report was published. In just one recent month – October 2019 – Robinson received five separate shipments from Bozovich, totalling over 63,000 square feet of flooring, enough to blanket an entire American football pitch. 

Typical sale prices for the species involved suggest that this wood had a retail value of over $350,000.

The timber Robinson now imports from Bozovich is labelled ‘’FSC 100%’’, meaning it originates from forest plots certified as being legally and sustainably managed by auditors against the global certification body’s standards.

Yet it is questionable how much trust can be placed on such certification in an environment like that in Peru, where systematic, sophisticated laundering of illegal timber is rampant. If the government cannot guarantee that wood comes from where it claims to, it is hard to believe that FSC auditors can.

FSC’s guarantee that this wood comes from where it claims to also ultimately depends upon nothing more than an annual audit of Bozovich’s internal systems and procedures: its FSC ‘chain of custody’ certification. 

Given the firm’s background of suspect practices, it seems unwise for Robinson to trust it. Especially given the potential pitfalls for the importer if the wood were to turn out to be illegal in origin.

Robinson Lumber states that it is a five-generation family company, with lumber yards in several US states, five locations in Latin America – including a flooring factory in Honduras – a sales office in Belgium and purchasing offices in Brazil. 

The company imports several tropical species from Latin America, including Jatoba, Ipe, Cumaru, Tigerwood, Santos Mahogany, Spanish Cedar and Andiroba, as well as Khaya, Sapele and Plantation Cedar from Cameroon. The company buys Cumaru (Brazilian Teak), Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry) and Santos Mahogany flooring, and Cumaru decking from Bozovich.

Robinson boasts of having supplied wood for the Royal Opera House in Malta, the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the Bridgetown Boardwalk in Barbados, the MAS Museum in Antwerp and the World War II Museum in Louisiana, among others.

Robinson Lumber’s imports from Bozovich are not only a reputational risk for the US company, which supplies customers in over 60 countries with fine woods, flooring and decking. They also raise the likelihood of the company falling foul of the US Lacey Act, which bans the import of illegally sourced wood. 

To avoid the highest penalties, companies are required to take ‘due care’ by checking their supply chains to ensure their imports aren’t illegal. Given what is known about illegality in Peru, it is uncertain whether FSC certification and possession of official documents alone would constitute ‘due care’, especially given the record of Robinson’s supplier. And even if it was found to have practiced due care, it wouldn’t prevent the wood from being seized were it found to have been illegal.

Melissa Blue Sky, a senior lawyer with CIEL who has investigated the Peruvian timber sector for several years, told Timberleaks, “When the industry itself is admitting that it is not able to trace the timber it exports to its origin, this is more than enough evidence that it is not possible for a US importer to carry out proper due care in its timber purchases.”

Unreliability of FSC certification and official documentation apart, Bozovich’s long rapsheet of questionable business practices alone should have labelled it an untrustworthy trading partner for a discerning US timber trader.

In response to Earthsight's request for comment, a representative for Bozovich stated: "We appreciate the opportunity you give us to respond to your specific findings related to our company. We respectfully decline to comment on them; since most of them have already been previously explained to the competent authorities to their satisfaction.

"We emphasize that our company have a responsible public procurement policy we follow, the same that is posted on our website. We also have to say that we have always collaborated with our national authorities and foreign authorities. 

"As a result of this collaboration and applying the US-PERU Trade Promotion Agreement, verifications were made to our exports to the USA in 2018. The results proved that our exports have complied with our forestry legislation and the legal origin of the exported wood products verified.

"Our company firmly believes the forestry industry as a source of well-being for the society and the environment, strongly believes in the FSC certification system that improve forestry practices, and strongly believes in forestry as a sustainability option for a forest constantly threatened by the increase of agriculture, cattle raising and other activities that undermine its conservation and future survival."

When presented with these findings, a representative for Robinson Lumber told Earthsight: ‘’We take these matters seriously; however, until we understand these findings in the context of your full report, we respectfully decline to comment on them. We appreciate any opportunity to improve and strengthen our controls and procedures, and have convened an internal working group to evaluate the information you have provided, as well as any relevant information in your forthcoming report.’’

Robinson Lumber has previously recognised that its customers are increasingly concerned about the legality of their wood and its origin. A fourth generation member of US-family Robinson told the National Harwood Magazine that “US Hardwoods, such as we supply, are much more environmentally friendly. The US has managed its forests well and in a more sustainable and transparent manner versus tropical countries.”

Perhaps the company should take heed of these words and review its commercial ties with Bozovich.

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