Indigenous Groups and NRDC Announce Lawsuit to Stop Contraband Shipments;
Four Private U.S. Importers and other U.S. Agencies also Named in Suit
WASHINGTON (March 14, 2006) -- The Department of Homeland Security and two other U.S. agencies are illegally allowing contraband Peruvian mahogany to enter the United States, according to a lawsuit announced today by two Peruvian indigenous groups and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a U.S.-based conservation organization.
Nearly all of Peru's mahogany exports are logged illegally, the groups say, and more than 80 percent of the contraband harvest ends up in the United States, mostly for luxury furniture. The logging is having devastating effects on native Amazon communities, wildlife, and survival of the mahogany species itself. Loggers cut down more than 4,000 trees a year, and at that pace, experts predict that mahogany will be commercially extinct within a decade.
"Millions of dollars worth of Peruvian mahogany enters U.S. ports every year in violation of U.S. and international law," said Ari Hershowitz, NRDC's Latin America BioGems project director. "While U.S. border control agencies are looking the other way, the rainforest is being decimated and the lives of indigenous people are in jeopardy."
In addition to the Department of Homeland Security, NRDC and two Peruvian groups -- Native Federation of Madre de Dios (FENAMAD) and Racimos de Ungurahui -- plan to sue the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture, and four private U.S. importers: Bozovich Timber Products of Evergreen, Alabama; Maderera Gutierrez of Gulf Shores, Alabama; T. Baird International Corporation from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; and TBM Hardwoods of Hanover, Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit charges that importing the mahogany violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act and a major international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
Buyer Beware: Your Mahogany May Be Illegal
"Tens of thousands of tons of mahogany enter the U.S. to make expensive doors, dining room tables, luxury car interiors and high-end guitars," said Hershowitz. "What consumers don't know is that owning mahogany products contributes to the destruction of the rainforest and threatens the people who live there. We're simply asking people not to buy it."
U.S. demand drives the contraband mahogany market, Hershowitz said. Illegal loggers cut the trees in protected natural areas and territorial reserves set aside for indigenous peoples who have had little or no contact with the outside world. As armed loggers invade these remote Peruvian Amazon regions, they destroy the forest, devastate wildlife, and shoot and kill indigenous people.
Powerful timber companies pressure the Peruvian government to allow the illegally logged wood to be exported, Hershowitz said, and the U.S. government is breaking the law by allowing the shipments to enter the country. As a result, U.S. furniture makers simply have no way of knowing whether their Peruvian mahogany is legal.
The CITES treaty tightened international protection for mahogany in November 2003, a move backed by the Bush administration as a centerpiece of its initiative against illegal logging. Since then, however, the administration has done little to implement the treaty, and the United States remains the largest mahogany importer in the world.
Groundswell of Action in United States and Peru
The lawsuit is the last resort for FENAMAD, which has been fighting for years to stop illegal mahogany logging, and Racimos de Ungurahui, a national indigenous rights group based in Lima, Peru, which has lobbied the Peruvian government to set aside territories to protect indigenous peoples.
As a part of its BioGems Initiative -- which enlists the help of hundreds of thousands of citizens to save the Western Hemisphere's most endangered natural places -- NRDC launched a campaign last year to protect the last remaining stands of mahogany in Peru. (For more information about NRDC's BioGem Initiative, go to www.savebiogems.org.)
Working with another U.S conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC kicked off the effort by asking leading U.S. furniture manufacturers, including Stickley, Furniture Brands International, Henkel-Harris, and Hekman, not to use imported Peruvian mahogany in their products. To date, the companies have refused to take any action to address the problem.
By eliminating the lucrative market for illegal mahogany, NRDC and its partners hope to spur reform of corruption in the Peruvian logging industry and put an end to illegal logging.
NRDC and its Peruvian partners this week issued a letter announcing the lawsuit. Under the Endangered Species Act, the government agencies and the private importers named in the suit have 60 days to comply with the law before NRDC and its partners take legal action. The suit calls for the federal agencies to stop all illegally traded mahogany from entering the United States, and for the importers to forfeit illegally imported Peruvian mahogany wood already in the United States.