You are offered a position to work in a forest oversight authority - let’s call it OSINFOR. Your job involves going to the field to document whether logging operations are being conducted according to the law.
You discover extensive cases of illegal logging and take to meticulously documenting them. You publish your findings. Within hours, you get an angry call. The next day, you get your first threat. Soon after, you’re fired.
Why? Because the truth is, if you work for OSINFOR, doing a good job can land you in serious trouble.
Over the last decade, OSINFOR has taken the lead in inspecting timber harvest areas in the Amazon. Some of the inspections they’ve made are truly heroic and have shed much-needed light on the way loggers get away with logging illegally.
At Global Witness, we wanted to get a better sense of just how effective OSINFOR’s work has been. So we made official requests for huge amounts of data that they have been producing over the last decade.
We recently published our findings. They turn out to be pretty sobering: between 2008 and 2018, of all the harvest areas OSINFOR inspected in the three main timber producing regions in Peru, over 60 percent came from areas where widespread illegalities had been reported, including the laundering of a massive 2.5 million cubic meters of timber.
But far from being praised for uncovering such illegalities, OSINFOR has faced a fierce backlash from the private sector and some government officials – our short video gives a good sense of this.
OSINFOR has been subject to protests and attacks on its offices in major Amazon cities. Some inspectors have been barred from entering harvest areas.
In 2016, the then director was sacked and forced to flee Peru in fear for his life. He had played a key role in exposing the biggest timber export scandal in Peruvian history, which has also been the subject of a Global Witness investigation.
Just last month, OSINFOR’s independence was seriously weakened by being placed under the Ministry of the Environment, where it is more vulnerable to political meddling and conflicts of interest. This caused its director to hand in his notice, in protest at the move.
Rather than clipping the wings of such an effective institution by weakening its independence, the government of Peru should ensure that OSINFOR can continue to operate independently and give it appropriate resources to do so.
The US government has also expressed concern about the recent weakening, as it has signed a Trade Promotion Agreement with Peru that requires OSINFOR to be “independent and separate”.
The United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said about the situation: “Since its creation in 2008, OSINFOR has played a critical role in Peru detecting and combatting illegal logging, and we are gravely concerned that its independence is threatened. I urge Peru to abide by its obligations and restore OSINFOR’s separateness and independence, as called for in the PTPA.”
Prior to the agreement, OSINFOR had been under ministerial control, and was ineffective and starved of resources. It had no control over its own budget and was responsible for only one type of harvest area. Inspections were rarely undertaken, if at all, staff was poorly trained and corruption was said to be rife.
Only after OSINFOR's reincarnation as an independent agency free of control by any one ministry did its oversight operations dramatically improve. Placing OSINFOR under ministerial control once again risks taking the Peruvian logging sector back to the past.
There is a strong case to be made for OSINFOR’s mandate to be expanded: our analysis also reveals how some of Peru’s biggest sawmills consistently process high quantities of illegal timber without asking any questions as to the origin of the timber. Yet sawmills are areas where OSINFOR cannot make inspections.
Plantations and land cleared for agriculture are also beyond OSINFOR’s remit, so it is perhaps not a coincidence that these areas have recently begun to be used as laundering vehicles to make illegal timber appear as legal.
No one should be reprimanded, threatened or fired for doing a good job. And, in Peru, no one has played a more important role than OSINFOR in exposing what really goes on in Peru’s timber sector.
Given the scale of the plunder revealed in our investigation, Peru should make sure that it does not in any way undermine its forests’ eyes and ears.
Laura Furones, head of the Peru campaign at Global Witness.