December 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 12
T H E F R O N T
Mahogany Buyers Stumped
The Brazilian government announced the cancellation of virtually all
mahogany timber cutting operations in the Amazon in early December, effectively
shutting down the countrys massive illegal mahogany trade. The ban
excludes two logging operations that are in the process of being independently
certified as well-managed forest operations.
In late October, after receiving evidence of illegal logging on Indian
lands from Greenpeace, the Brazilian government temporarily froze all
Amazonian mahogany-related logging activities and seized over $7 million
worth of illegally cut trees.
Often referred to as green gold, mahogany fetches over $1,600
per cubic meter and is one of the most sought-after species of wood. Since
loggers go further and further into the jungle to get it, mahogany extraction
opens the door for widespread exploitation of the Brazilian Amazon.
IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency, stopped issuing new forest
management permits in 1996, but grandfathered in 13 existing plans. According
to Greenpeace, Brazils mahogany business is made up of a chain of
informal actors and middlemen dominated by a small group of sawmills and
exporters controlled by two Para state organized crime kingpins, Osmar
Alves Ferreira and Moises Varvalho Periera.
Amazon forest politics reached a pivotal moment in recent months. In
August, Epoca, Brazils second largest weekly news magazine, linked
Moises to the then-president of the Brazilian Senate, Jader Barbalho.
Barbalho quit the Senate in early October to avoid impeachment for alleged
crimes related to his tenure as minister for land reform, and for financial
scandals related to Sudam, the Amazon development agency.
In October, after Greenpeace released fresh evidence of illegal logging
on Kayapo Indian land, Greenpeace activists began to receive death threats.
Another activist, Ademir Alfeu Federicci, coordinator of the Movement
for the Development of the Transamazon and Xingu Region (MDTX), was gunned
down in his home in August.
A week after issuing its October decision to temporarily halt all logging,
transport and exports of mahogany, IBAMA officials carried out an 80-person
raid of illegal logging operations in the Middle Lands region of southern
Para, the major logging state, seizing about 10,000 cubic meters of illegal
mahogany in three locations.
According to Greenpeace, top U.S. furniture manufacturers have been complicit
in buying illegally harvested mahogany. Greenpeace made the explosive
allegations in Partners in Mahogany Crime, a report released
in late October. The list of top U.S. furniture manufacturers who purchase
Brazilian mahogany includes LifeStyle Furnishings, L & J.G. Stickley,
Inc., Henredon, Ethan Allen and Furniture Brands International. Major
importers include DLH Nordisk and Inter-Continental Hardwoods.
The International Wood Products Association (IWPA) responded that mahogany
imported to the United States is highly regulated and legal. It
has to come in with all the appropriate CITES [Convention on the Trade
in Endangered Species] documents, because its regulated by international
convention, says Brigid Shea, of IWPA, which asserts that it wants
to end illegal logging and supports the actions of the government of Brazil.
But Greenpeace campaigners say that, given the extent of illegal logging,
the companies must have been importing illegal wood no matter what they
say or what assurances they are given by their suppliers. The United States
is the biggest importer in the world (an estimated 70 percent of Brazilian
mahogany exports go to the United States) and the vast majority of whats
exported from Brazil is harvested illegally.
Any company that has been buying mahogany from Brazil would know,
if they took a cursory examination of their supply chain, that the process
is ripe with corruption, says Scott Paul.
Roberto Geoidanich, head of the sector of environment, human rights and
social affairs at the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C., says that
some exporters may have been forging authorization documents. While Geoidanich
believes Greenpeace overstates the case when it says 80 percent of the
mahogany exported from Brazil is illegal, the governments own raids
in late October made it clear that illegally cut logs make up a huge percentage
of whats harvested.
How is anyone supposed to know whether its illegal or not,
if its approved by the [Brazilian] government? says Shirley
Weaver, a wood buyer for Lexington Home Brands, which makes mahogany furniture.
If it gets to be such a big issue, [importers] will just change
areas and go to other areas outside of Brazil.
Following the December announcement of a mahogany ban, U.S. importers
will have no choice but to look to other markets if they continue importing
at current rates. But Greenpeace says that, because illegal logging is
rampant in Western Africa and Southeast Asia mahogany markets as well,
such a move will just shift the problem to another part of the world.
The group says the only solution is to demand wood certified as sustainably
harvested and legally trafficked by an independent organization such as
the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a Oaxaca, Mexico-based non-profit
We realize that many of these companies will not be able to get
FSC-certified wood tomorrow, but by publicly stating that it is their
intention to use it when it is available, and by sending letters down
their supply chain that signals that intention, the furniture makers would
be creating a tremendous ripple effect, says Scott Paul.
Lord of the Fries
The rapid rise of irrigated potato farming, with its associated increase
in aerial spraying and fertilizer use, has caused widespread concern among
Native and farming communities in northwestern Minnesota, where residents
say that the chemicals are finding their way into drinking wells and lakes
where they may be responsible for a mysterious rise in frog deformities.
Potatoes rank fifth in overall pesticide use among U.S. crops, behind
corn, soybeans, cotton, and grapes. According to the White Earth Land
Recovery Project, which released Potatoes, Frogs and Water: R.D.
Offutt Co. and Northwestern Minnesotas Future in October,
tens of millions of pounds of pesticides (excluding sprout inhibitors
used in storage) are used on potatoes in the U.S. each year.
Nicknamed the Lord of the Fries, CEO Ron Offutt built the
R.D. Offutt Company, a regionally based corporation with headquarters
in Fargo,North Dakota, into the largest independent potato producer in
the world. In 1999, the company owned, leased and operated farms on over
100,000 acres of land in 11 states.
Ron Offutt himself also owns controlling interest in RDO Equipment, the
largest John Deere distributor in the nation.
R.D. Offutt produces potatoes for large fast-food clients including McDonalds,
Frito Lay and frozen food companies like Ore Ida. The U.S. market for
french fries alone is estimated to be worth $12 billion a year.
Unfortunately for Offutts neighbors, the potatoes that make the
perfect french fries need heavy applications of pesticides. Federal and
state laws that govern the use of pesticides in agriculture do not prevent
aerial spraying near homes, lakeshores or towns. The company has survived
legal challenges to its aerial spraying operations. After Hubbard Country,
Minnesota passed a local ordinance to stop the spraying, Offutt sued and
overturned the ordinance, causing other counties to hesitate to try their
own ordinance. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture the
state agency charged with regulating pesticides joined the
lawsuit on the side of Offutt and the states licensed commercial
We follow best management practices and certainly only use legal
chemicals, says Larry Monico, a member of Offutts management
team. Were too big and too scrutinized to even think about
doing anything else.
But whether or not the chemicals are carefully controlled when applied,
some may be spreading into the broader environment. And as described in
Potatoes, Frogs and Water, a few of the chemicals used by
Offutt, including Maneb and permethrin, have been linked in independent
studies to a high death rate and birth defects in frogs.
Scientists have been puzzled for years by the high incidence of frog
deformities found in Minnesota lakes in recent years.
Those deformities werent found in the area near our farms,
says Monico. It was more southern and south-central Minnesota where
they foundthose. So I dont know what theyre talking about.
But environmentalists say the environmental factors can carry the chemicals
through the food chain or in the wind and rain. And researchers from the
Stover Group in Stillwater Oklahoma who collected water samples from Minnesota
lakes found a chemical soup of contaminants that cause frog
deformities, including Maneb.