The big-leaf mahogany is a literal and figurative giant of Peru’s Tahuamanú Rainforest. Reaching 350 years of age and towering 200 feet above the forest floor, the mammoth tree lives up to its name with leaves that span more than a foot and a half. It’s also the cornerstone of a diverse ecosystem that supports giant river otters, red and turquoise macaws, ocelots, jaguars, and squirrel monkeys.
Outside of the rainforest, these majestic evergreens have value of a very different sort. Big-leaf mahogany’s rich, red, workable wood has been a favorite material for high-end furniture and musical instruments since the 1500s. But centuries of high demand for the prized timber have decimated all but a few of Peru’s old-growth stands and made the country a prime target for illegal logging.
An individual big-leaf mahogany can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international market, leading loggers to poach the trees on remote protected land and in areas set aside for indigenous groups who have little to no contact with the outside world, such as the Mashco Piro, Matsigenka, and Amahuaca peoples.
In recent years, more than 80 percent of the Peruvian mahogany sold overseas has ended up in the United States. “Many American consumers have no idea that by purchasing these products, they are driving the destruction of Peru’s rainforests and threatening the survival of vulnerable indigenous communities,” says Ari Hershowitz, a former NRDC campaign director.
NRDC knew it was time to act as far back as 2002, when it designated the Tahuamanú Rainforest as one of its first BioGems, an initiative aimed at protecting the most endangered natural treasures in the Americas by mobilizing online activists. Seeing that the United States was well positioned to tighten controls on mahogany, the organization launched a three-part strategy to root out illegal timber from the supply chain, an effort that eventually resulted in significant protections for endangered forests all around the world.
The first step was to upgrade the status of mahogany under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty that aims to protect wild species from the consequences of international trade. Next, in partnership with the indigenous organization Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and the Peruvian forest group Racimos de Ungurahui, NRDC took legal action against top U.S. timber importers for violating the Endangered Species Act. Even before the first case reached a courtroom, Peru yielded to pressure in 2007 and stopped the export of all mahogany that had not been legally inspected in the field by a recognized forestry authority.
NRDC’s third strategy involved working with a coalition of environmental and labor groups to push the U.S. government to make illegal logging an issue in all future bilateral trade agreements. The U.S.-Peru trade agreement implemented in 2009, for instance, includes a substantial annex that lists steps to halt illegal timber trade and better manage Peru’s forests. The country is currently piloting an electronic timber-tracking system that will trace the movement of each log from stump to port.
The combined effect of these victories was nearly immediate. Between 2006 and 2007, Peru’s mahogany exports dropped from 22,000 to 2,000 tons. But NRDC didn’t stop there. The success of these actions generated momentum to cut down illegal logging across the globe. In 2008, with the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the World Wildlife Fund, NRDC successfully lobbied lawmakers to amend the Lacey Act—a U.S. conservation law that prohibits illegal wildlife trafficking—to also include illegal wood and plant products.
Major raids of the Gibson Guitar Corporation and Lumber Liquidators have since proved the law’s effectiveness in stemming illegal timber trafficking. But the Peruvian rainforest isn’t out of the woods yet. For one thing, the Lacey Act has weathered attacks in Congress. Then there’s the fact that Peru has repeatedly violated the strict standards now in place, and U.S. enforcement has been lax. NRDC continues to work with other NGOs and the U.S. trade representative to ensure that the American and Peruvian governments are living up to the language in these vital pieces of legislation.
Meanwhile, the Peruvian forest faces other threats, like agricultural expansion and unregulated gold mining. A 2013 report by the Carnegie Institute found that the destruction of forest destroyed by gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of the country had increased fourfold between 1999 and 2012. “The way they’re doing the mining, they have to cut down a lot of trees,” says Susan Egan Keane, deputy director of NRDC’s Health program.
Small-scale miners often use mercury to extract gold—a cheap but highly toxic and dangerous method. Exposure to mercury puts the miners at risk of neurological symptoms like tremors, memory loss, headaches, and poor coordination. Mercury also makes its way into the local waterways, where it accumulates in the fish that indigenous communities rely on for food. NRDC’s Health program is currently involved in promoting better gold-extraction technologies, as well as better governance of small-scale mining, to make it safer for miners, local communities, wildlife, and the environment.
The Amazon is the lungs of the planet, a biodiversity hot spot, and home to indigenous peoples. If a tree falls illegally in the Peruvian rainforest, you can be sure that NRDC will make a sound.