BRASILIA (Reuters) - Over the past year Brazil exported thousands of cargoes of wood from an Amazonian port without authorization from the federal environment agency, increasing the risk they originated from illegally deforested land, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
After customs officials in Europe and the United States alerted Brazil of the issue, the president of the Brazilian environment agency known as Ibama changed regulations to do away with previously required export authorizations, according to an internal document seen by Reuters.
The changes made by Ibama President Eduardo Bim overruled a technical opinion by five Ibama analysts who argued the export approvals should remain in place.
The two Ibama sources, who have both worked directly on wood inspection and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about professional repercussions, said the changes further weaken Brazil’s ability to control the export of illegally deforested wood.
Ibama responded to questions from Reuters with a detailed technical description of the current process for exporting wood, not mentioning the previous need for a separate authorization from the agency.
Ibama referred to export clearances given by the federal Revenue Service, saying they are only granted after cross referencing with the country’s system for overseeing wood to verify that it is of legitimate origin. Ibama is still able to make spot inspections of wood cargos headed for export, it said.
Pará, the Amazonian state from where the thousands of unchecked shipments of wood and lumber were exported, is a hotbed of deforestation.
For the 12 months through July 2019, Pará accounted for 40% of all illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, according to government data. The 3,862 square kilometers (1,491 square miles) destroyed there in one year is an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and its protection is seen as vital to curbing climate change because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas that it absorbs and stores.
Destruction of the Amazon surged last year, provoking a global outcry, with some foreign leaders and environmentalists blaming the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro for emboldening illegal loggers, ranchers and land speculators.
Bolsonaro has said he is unfairly demonized and the fact that so much of the Amazon is still standing shows Brazil is a model for conservation.
The rule change scrapping Ibama’s authorizations for most timber exports came after five cargoes of wood arrived in U.S. and European ports earlier this year without Ibama authorization, the two sources said.
Foreign authorities contacted Brazil to ask about the missing authorizations, with the head of Ibama in Pará then retroactively granting the authorizations, the sources said.
The problem, however, is much more widespread than just the five shipments. In Pará state, more than half of the roughly 3,000 officially registered shipments in the past year, containing an estimated 54,000 cubic meters of wood, that left one port did not have authorization, one of the Ibama employees with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Companies had requested authorizations from Ibama for those shipments but exported them before the agency had time to respond, the person said.
Beyond that, many shipments were exported without seeking approval from Ibama in the first place, but the exact number is unknown, the source said.
Shipments went to the United States, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium and possibly other countries, the person said.
Ibama agents are investigating the matter with results imminent, the second Ibama source said.
Before the rules changed, Ibama was required to give authorization to all wood exports before they leave port. Most of the shipments needed only the proper paperwork in order to be given the green light, but certain cargoes would be randomly selected for physical inspection.
This allowed agents to catch cargoes that contain prohibited types of wood or shipments that have been stuffed with extra illegal wood beyond the amount described on the manifest, a common practice for hiding illegal shipments.
“Without export authorization, it weakens the ability for someone to know whether the wood they’re buying is really of legal origin or not,” the second Ibama source said.
Brazil was the world’s ninth-largest exporter of forestry products in 2018, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Brazilian law demands that property owners preserve 80% of their land in the Amazon as natural vegetation. Selective logging is allowed in some areas under concessions that provide for only a few trees to be extracted from each hectare of land every 20 years or so.
While wood produced in violation of these rules is illegal, non-government organization Greenpeace says that in practice it can be difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal wood due to various forms of fraud and poor oversight.
In an order signed on Feb. 25 and seen by Reuters, Ibama President Bim reinterpreted existing rules and laws, saying that wood exports in most cases do not need export approval from Ibama. In doing so, Bim overruled a Feb. 13 technical opinion by five Ibama analysts who argued that the export approvals should remain in place.
Bim decided that existing systems in Brazil requiring registration of wood for transportation, processing, commerce, consumption and storage meant that a separate export authorization was not needed.
He allowed for some exceptions, ruling that five products still need export authorization. But one of the Ibama sources said that those categories only account for a small fraction of Brazil’s forestry exports.
Threatened species of wood also remain subject to special controls.
Reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia; additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; editing by Stephen Eisenhammer, Matthew Lewis and Richard Pullin