Acknowledging the United States’ Role in the Deforestation of the Amazonian Rainforests

This is depressing, if unsurprising:

 Since 2008, over 20 U.S. companies have imported illegally logged timber worth millions from the Peruvian Amazon, charged a multi-year investigative report released Tuesday by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

“Exporters in Peru and importers in the United States and around the world are currently integral parts of a systematic flow of illegal timber from the Peruvian Amazon. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes through sheer negligence, each of the actors and agencies involved in this system are working as gears in a well-oiled machine that is ransacking Peru’s forests and undermining the livelihoods and rights of the people that depend on them,” the report stated.

The investigation discovered at least 112 shipments of protected cedar and mahogany were illegally laundered with fabricated papers and imported by U.S. companies between 2008 and 2010. Tracing timber routes from the Amazon to the U.S. warehouses isn’t easy, according to the report, as “links in this chain are willfully obscured to perpetuate confusion about the origins of almost all timber traded in Peru.”

Certainly, there are institutional and structural issues in Peru that facilitate the export of illegal lumber, but the blame does not fall solely on Peru. Too often we associate deforestation with South America, treating it as an environmental  problem that we have to fix, or as something attributable only to the clearing of land for agriculture. While deforestation is certainly a major issue facing the world today, it is neither a strictly environmental problem nor a uniquely South American problem. As the article reminds us, “Illegal logging comes with massive human, environmental and economic costs. The loggers often work under abysmal and exploitative conditions,” making the issue of deforestation a major social, political, and economic issue in addition to its environmental impact.

And  it’s important to remember the U.S.’s role (and other countries that import plants and animals from rainforests) in this process. Deforestation is not just related to the clearing of land; it often happens for products that the United States uses and consumes. As with the drug trade, in many ways supply responds to demand. Certainly, eliminating the demand for wood from the Amazon (or other global rainforests) would not permanently end deforestation, but it could discourage it. It is still good to speak out against deforestation and work towards preserving the world’s ecosystems, but at the same time, it’s also important to keep in mind our own complicity in the process of environmental and economic destruction, in the Amazon and elsewhere.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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