The Multinational Monitor


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 country’s 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 the long run, this will prove beneficial to the Brazilian timber industry,” says Scott Paul of Greenpeace’s forest campaign. “As concerns grow over illegal logging in the global marketplace, importers will be looking to buy from trustworthy, well-managed sources.”

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, Brazil’s 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, Brazil’s 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 it’s 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 what’s 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 government’s own raids in late October made it clear that illegally cut logs make up a huge percentage of what’s harvested.

“How is anyone supposed to know whether it’s illegal or not, if it’s 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 certifying agency.

“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.

—Charlie Cray

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 Minnesota’s 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 McDonald’s, 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 Offutt’s 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 state’s licensed commercial pesticide applicators.

“We follow best management practices and certainly only use legal chemicals,” says Larry Monico, a member of Offutt’s management team. “We’re 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 weren’t found in the area near our farms,” says Monico. “It was more southern and south-central Minnesota where they foundthose. So I don’t know what they’re 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.

— Charlie Cray