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Trading Human Rights for Timber


Siakor gives his account of illegal logging in DC.

Earlier this month, environmental activists from Liberia and Peru came to the U.S. to share first-hand accounts of illegal logging, the destruction it brings to their communities and forests, and what we can do to bring the harmful practice to a halt.

Speaking at a series of lectures in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including Senate and House briefings on Capitol Hill, Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of Liberia and Julia Urrunaga of Peru highlighted the Lacey Act, a historic piece of U.S. legislation and the most effective tool we have to stop illegal logging and associated trade.


Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor

Siakor is a local hero and a global award-winning figure. In 2006, he received a Goldman Prize, the world’s largest prize honoring environmental activists, after risking his life to expose that Liberian
President Charles Taylor used proceeds from illegal logging to fund civil war. As founder of the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia, he still works to rally grassroots activists to empower communities and expose corrupt environmental practices.

Julia Urrunaga, Peru Director for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), also works to bring forest crime to the light of day. In Peru, she helps to give voice to locals and promote policies that help eliminate illegally sourced timber and forest products from global markets. After years of investigation, Urrunaga and EIA released “The Laundering Machine,” a report uncovering illegal logging and timber laundering throughout the Peruvian Amazon.

Across the world, criminals are taking advantage of otherwise unprotected forests with illegal logging, engaging in illicit activities along the way. The illegal logging process begins when companies and crime syndicates cut trees without authorization, launder them with counterfeit or mismatched permits, and send them to unsafe sawmills. Eventually, the timber or wood products are then shipped, with none the wiser as to where it came from or what was sacrificed to make your coffee table. 

Siakor emphasized the importance of the Lacey Act as an “important tool” in combating illegal logging. By penalizing those who import illegally harvested wood products and wildlife, it holds corporations accountable for identifying exactly where they got their wood from and what type of wood it is.

Though illegal logging differs from Peru to Liberia and everywhere in between, Siakor and Urrunaga

Julia Urrunaga

share similar stories. The activists spoke urgently about not only the chronic deforestation and habitat loss that occurs when logging is performed without regard to regulations and laws, but also about the
destruction of communities and human rights violations that come with secret logging camps operating under the radar.

Illegal logging companies lure people into signing faulty contracts with no intent to follow through. Communities are promised a percent of the profit and future development, only to find that they “never receive a dime,” Siakor said.

Urrunaga explained how the forests are critical not only to the economy of Peru, but also to the diverse communities who live in and depend upon forests. Even though much of the deep jungle has been uninhabited and untouched, they still need the trees that provide their livelihood.

“This is the development they promised,” Urrunaga said as she flipped through digital images of children standing in once rich forested areas now destroyed by illegal logging operations.

At the logging camps, workers are severely underpaid, if at all. Men who are hurt on the job are not guaranteed medical attention, and can only hope for a ride into the next town to seek the aid of a hospital. Some female cooks and maids are expected to work overtime and provide sexual favors to the camps full of men. Urrunaga spoke on behalf of silhouetted men and women who testified on camera to these facts but were afraid to show their faces for fear of reprisal.


“People who want to make this sound ridiculous say that we’re making a big fuss about a couple of trees and a few cute animals. It’s really not about that. It’s about human beings,” Urrunaga said. “We don’t think about these things when we buy a pretty table.”

The American people have a huge stake in the strength and effectiveness of the Lacey Act, as we are frequent consumers of products sourced illegally. At least 10 percent of annual U.S. wood imports are estimated to be of illegal origin. In some tropical countries, it is estimated that up to 90 percent of all logging is illegal.

“If someone is buying, there will be production,” Urrunaga said.

The stories of Siakor and Urrunaga underscore the need to do everything we can to stop the illegal timber trade. That's why fully implementing the Lacey Act is so crucial. Be sure to watch and share this video on the Lacey Act, then ask your Representatives to support full implementation of this critical law.

--Tori Ravenel, Sierra Club Media Team

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