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Amazon, Brazil

The U.S. Port That Is a Leading Destination for Illegal Timber Imports From Brazil's Amazon Rainforest

In January 2020, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) inspectors detained three containers in the port of Savannah, Georgia, containing 153,597 cubic meters of ipê and jatobá decks — two Amazonian hardwoods — on suspicion of irregularities in the forest origin documents. Originating in the port of Vila do Conde, in Pará, Brazil, the cargo belonged to Tradelink Madeiras Ltda, the Brazilian subsidiary of the British group Tradelink Wood Products.

In the weeks following the seizure, FWS agents noticed an unusual closeness between representatives of the company and members of the superintendence of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) in Pará, who intervened directly to speed up the release of the cargo. The Brazilian Federal Police entered the case and opened an investigation that led to Operation Akuanduba, which was launched in April 2021, targeting Ricardo Salles, then minister of the environment, and Eduardo Bim, former president of IBAMA. The two officially became defendants on August 28 for passive corruption, crimes against flora and criminal organization in a timber "laundering" scheme. The case is being heard by the 4th Federal Criminal Court of Pará.

cargo ship
A freighter leaves the terminal at the port of Savannah, Georgia / Credit: Jeremy Polston, Georgia Ports Authority.

Neither the resignation of Salles — now a federal deputy in the lower house of the National Congress of Brazil — nor the defeat of President Jair Bolsonaro at the polls stopped the flow of native Amazonian wood to the United States.

An unpublished survey by Agribusiness Watch shows that, between January and July 2023, 14 exporting companies fined by IBAMA — including Tradelink itself — together exported 4,640.62 tons of wood to the U.S., despite the commitment signed in April 2022 by U.S. President Joe Biden to expand control over the timber trade from areas of recent deforestation.

Over the course of three months, our team analyzed 791 environmental fines under Article 47 of Decree 6.514/2008, relating to the trade or transport of wood without a license or with irregular documentation. The fines were issued by IBAMA's regional superintendence in Pará between January and July 2023. Together, the infractions total 3.6 million U.S. dollars — around 2% of all environmental fines registered in the state.

Timber exporters are an important source of fines: 28% of the fines imposed in the category of buying and selling irregular timber come from companies affiliated to the Association of Timber Exporters in the State of Pará (AIMEX), the sector's main representation and lobbying group. Together, the infractions amount to 1.02 million U.S. dollars.

The information was then cross-referenced with import data from the United States, obtained through the ImportGenius platform and the U.S. Census Bureau. The observatory identified 176 operations originating in the port of Vila do Conde, in Pará.

Of the 4,640.62 tons exported by the companies fined, 982 were nationalized at the port of Savannah in Georgia. The port that led to the operation against Salles has received 41 shipments of wood and so far leads the way in imports of decks and floors of native Brazilian trees. Nationally, Savannah ranks only 10th among the main U.S. ports.

Although the timber trade is tracked by IBAMA's Origin of Forest Products Control System (SINAFLOR), a study by the Simex Network published last year showed that 41% of the logging that took place between August 2020 and July 2021 in the Amazon was illegal. In Pará, the country's main exporter of native timber, 23,390 hectares were extracted without authorization, affecting indigenous lands and conservation units.

The survey identified 18 timber exporters fined by IBAMA in 2023, 14 of which exported to the U.S. / Credit: Olho dos Ruralistas. 

Georgia on my mind: from pine trees to Ipê

Immortalized in the voice of Ray Charles, the song "Georgia on my mind" evokes the natural landscapes of the southeastern United States to express an almost universal feeling: nostalgia for home. Made the state's official anthem in 1979, one of its verses talks about the pine forests, one of the region's main (and most threatened) ecosystems.

Old picture of wood
Transportation of pine decks in Savannah in 1955 / Credit: Archive, Georgia Port Authority.

In addition to its symbolic value, the pine tree has served as the basis for strengthening Georgia's timber industry. The state has the largest area of planted forests in the U.S. and is home to some of the largest manufacturers and distributors of wood products in the world. According to the Georgia Forestry Association, in 2020 the sector alone generated 39.1 billion U.S. dollars — a 7% increase on the last survey in 2018, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This figure corresponds to the total GDP of Pará, the 10th largest in Brazil.

This growth in the timber industry has led more and more companies in the sector to look to the Brazilian Amazon for alternative raw materials to the traditional Georgia pine, which is now threatened with extinction.

Data from the Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Services (MDIC) shows that in 2022 Pará accounted for 13.9% of Brazil's exports of wood profiles and laminates to the U.S. In total, 32,800 tons — mostly of native species such as ipê (Handroanthus) — left the Amazonian state for the U.S. market. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 7,500 tons were nationalized via the port of Savannah. That is, 23% of the total volume.

This trade flow was directly benefited by the relaxation of the rules for trade in forest products imposed by former President Bolsonaro, which allowed the release of cargo suspected of irregularities detained at the port of Vila do Conde. Between 2021 and 2022, while other states were suffering the effects of the pandemic, exports of lumber from Pará to the United States jumped by 48.6%.

Tradelink concentrates operations at the port of Savannah

Despite leading the way in imports of native wood from companies fined by IBAMA between January and July 2023, the port of Savannah is home to few players. Of the 41 operations identified in the survey, 29 were sent by the same company: Tradelink Madeiras Ltda, the Brazilian subsidiary of the timber empire founded by Leon Robert Welch in 1989. Headquartered in London, the group has seven sales offices in the United States, Canada, China, France, Portugal and South Africa, responsible for selling wood produced in the Amazon.

Brazilian wood in Tradelink’s deposit in North Carolina / Credit: Tradelink.

From its plant in Ananindeua, Pará the company shipped 752 tons of wood to Savannah, consigned to the U.S. subsidiary Tradelink Wood Products, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Georgia port has been the British group's main logistics base since at least 2016, and by 2023 it will account for half of the volume of cargo sent by the company to the United States. One of its main clients is Lowe's, the country's second largest construction retail chain.

In addition to direct operations, Tradelink Wood Products received containers from two other Brazilian companies: Amazônia Florestal Ltda, fined 37,300 U.S. dollars, and Laminados de Madeira do Pará Ltda, which has accumulated 155,180 Brazilian reais in fines. The description of the commercial invoices points to a focus on hardwoods such as jatobá (Hymenaea courbaril l.), cumaru (Dipteryx odorata) and muiracatiara (Astronium lecoinducke).

In Brazil, Tradelink received 24 environmental fines, totaling 152,420 U.S. dollars, placing it in third place among the most fined Amazonian timber exporters in 2023. The company's history of infractions is even more extensive.

Based on data from IBAMA, the Federal Police found that, by 2021, the company had at least 1.4 million U.S. dollars in debts resulting from environmental fines due to a lack of control over its supply chain.

According to Repórter Brasil, Tradelink Madeiras has already bought products from Bonardi da Amazônia, a logging company caught in 2012 with nine people in slave labor. The group claimed to have visited the sawmill four months earlier and found no irregularities. A 2015 Greenpeace report says that Tradelink was one of the companies that bought products from Madeireira Santo Antônio, which in turn was 95% supplied by Agropecuária Santa Ifigênia, suspected of "heating" illegal wood using official documentation obtained fraudulently.

The final report of Operation Akuanduba revealed the political side of the company. As described by Folha de S. Paulo, in 2021, customs authorities in Belgium and Denmark reported to members of the FWS in the United States that they had received calls from Tradelink via telephone extensions belonging to IBAMAs superintendence in Pará. Also according to FWS employees, who cooperated with the Federal Police in the investigation, a representative of the company said, during a meeting, that he was responsible for appointing superintendent Walter Mendes Magalhães Junior. A former military policeman, Magalhães acted directly to release 110 cubic meters of sawn jatoba and ipê belonging to Tradelink.

In a letter issued at the time, the superintendent stated that this was not a privilege for the British group, but that he would help "any companies in a similar context, not restricted to the company in question".

Logistics center of Tradelink Wood Products, a company fined for lack of environmental control in Pará / Credit: Tradelink. 

Sabra international's suppliers total 46,000 U.S. dollars in fines

Based in Miami, Florida, Sabra International Inc. is one of the leading timber traders in the United States. Between January and July 2023, the company handled 701 tons originating in the port of Vila do Conde and transhipped at the port of Pecém, in Ceará, where it operates together with Brazilian EGL Export, owned by businessman Eliel Lima — who, on his LinkedIn, defines himself as Sabra's "business executive". Of this total, 162 tons entered through the Port of Savannah.

Illegal timber passes through ports in the Caribbean before reaching the port of Savannah.

Sabra's main partner in Brazil is Madeireira Ideal, from which it imported 82 tons of ipê-roxo (Handroanthus impertiginosum) decking. Based in Barcarena, the company was fined 4,140 U.S. dollars on April 5 for irregular transportation of wood. Next in line are Garibaldi Indústria e Comércio de Madeiras, with 38 tons sold and 3,840 U.S. dollars in fines imposed in 2023, and Exmam Exportadora, with 17 tons and fines totaling 18,260 U.S. dollars. All three are members of AIMEX.

Despite representing a smaller share of Sabra's business, supplier Coexpa Comércio e Exportação de Produtos da Amazônia has the longest history of environmental infractions. An investigation by Revista Piauí in 2022 identified the company's participation in the commercialization chain of a batch of ipê illegally extracted from the Jamanxim National Forest and exported to the J. Gibson Mcllvain Company, which operates in the port of Baltimore, Maryland.

Between January and July 2023, Coexpa racked up 10 infractions, totaling 19,840 Brazilian reais. In total, the company exported 558 tons to the U.S., two-thirds of which went to J. Gibson. According to the article, Coexpa's owner, Bruno Atayde Leão, is a defendant in two criminal proceedings in the Pará courts.

Sabra, for its part, has been cited since 2003 as a buyer of illegal timber: a Greenpeace report from that year revealed that the Miami-based importer had done business with Madenorte S/A, which is accused of irregularly grabbing 72,000 hectares of forests in the Amazon.

IBAMA fines rise again under Lula administration

According to the survey carried out by Agribusiness Watch, the resumption of environmental policies by the new government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has not completely contained the irregular timber trade. Under the management of Minister Marina Silva, IBAMA resumed its inspection activities, which had been paralyzed during the Bolsonaro administration: Between January and July 2023, environmental fines increased by 147% compared to the average of the previous four years. Seizures of offenders' property increased by 107%.

Leandro Rymsza, from AIMEX, worked with Salles and Bim to release batches of irregular timber / Credit: AIMEX.

In June, Lula resumed the mechanism for converting fines into environmental services, suspended by Salles in 2019 in order to implement a new "conciliation" system which, in practice, prevented the Brazilian state from collecting 5.8 billion U.S. dollars from environmental crimes.

The timber sector's response was swift: Represented by AIMEX, Pará's timber exporters filed a collective injunction in March calling for the suspension of 3,000 administrative proceedings filed by IBAMA for lack of export authorization (Autex) in operations carried out between 2018 and 2019. In the lawsuit, AIMEX claimed that the document could not be required because an order issued by IBAMA itself in 2020 considered that the establishment of SINAFLOR in 2014 removed the Autex requirement, which had been in force since 2011. The request for an injunction was denied by the federal judge José Airton de Aguiar Portela.

AIMEX is currently chaired by businessman Leandro Raul Rymsza, who already held the position on an interim basis between April and November 2021, the period in which Operation Akuanduba took place. One of the excerpts from the investigation shows that the previous year, on February 6, 2020, he met with the former president of IBAMA, Eduardo Bim, days before the publication of the order suspending the Autex requirement. The meeting was also attended by the then president of AIMEX, Carlos Roberto Pupo, and the directors of Tradelink Madeiras, Juan Perzan, and CRAS Agroindústria, Aldyr Foekel — all direct beneficiaries of the release.

Association of loggers promotes "green" certification and lobbies for relaxation of export rules / Credit: AIMEX.

Rymsza is one of the partners of Laminados de Madeiras do Pará (LAMAPA), which came second among the companies that received the most fines from IBAMA for irregular timber trade in 2023, according to a survey by this observatory.

Between January and July, the company received 26 fines, totaling 155,180 U.S. dollars. In the main infraction, issued on March 21, LAMAPA was fined 18,460 U.S. dollars for "selling 275.478 m³ of sawn timber, of which 66.280 m³ were CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] or threatened with extinction and 209.198 m³ were non-CITES or not threatened with extinction, without a valid license granted by the competent environmental agency, since there was no additional export authorization issued by IBAMA."

In the same period, LAMAPA exported 50 tons of laminated purpleheart (Peltogyne maranhensis), a wood valued for furniture and flooring because of its purplish color. The two shipments, received on February 20 and June 13, were destined for Tradelink Wood Products Ltd, the U.S. arm of the British group. The cargoes left the ports of Manzanillo, Panama, and Bustamente, Jamaica, respectively. Analysis of the commercial invoices, however, shows that the place of origin was the port of Vila do Conde, in Pará.

Leandro, the son of Romualdo Rymsza — one of the founders of LAMAPA and its parent company, the Paraná group Laminort — entered politics in 2022, running for the position of second alternate to former Senator Flexa Ribeiro, who tried to return to Congress after losing re-election in 2018. A former president of the Federation of Industries of the State of Pará (FIEPA), Ribeiro is one of the timber sector's main lobbyists with the state and federal governments and a staunch critic of IBAMA's operations. During his mandate, he paid tribute to businessmen linked to AIMEX, such as former deputy Elias Salame da Silva, who died in 2009 and appears on the list of 4,600 mega-deforesters compiled by the observatory.

Read the original Portuguese-language story here.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Olho dos Ruralistas on August 29, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Wood seized by Federal Police at the port / Credit: Federal Police.