By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. agents searched the offices of a California-based wood importer this week as part of a broadening government crackdown on imports of illegally harvested timber, according to a previously unreported federal search warrant seen by Reuters.
The Department of Homeland Security agents are probing whether privately held Global Plywood & Lumber Inc violated U.S. and Peruvian law by importing wood that officials say was taken from the Amazon without proper permits, according to the warrant filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego on Monday and executed on Tuesday.
No charges have been brought against the company. A Homeland Security spokesman in Houston said the investigation was ongoing.
Kenneth Peabody, Global Plywood manager, declined to comment on the warrant, the latest sign of increased U.S. efforts to curb logging of rare forest species.
In February, wood flooring giant Lumber Liquidators Inc agreed to pay more than $13 million in criminal fines and forfeitures to resolve a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the import of wood illegally logged in far eastern Russia, home to many endangered species.
The Justice Department called that the largest financial penalty for timber trafficking under the Lacey Act, a conservation law passed in 1990 and amended in 2008 to ban commerce in certain plants and plant products, including those made from illegally logged woods.
Global Plywood began importing wood products from Peru in 2007 and started receiving shipments from Peruvian exporting firm Inversiones La Oroza in 2010, according to an affidavit filed with the search warrant.
A 2010 investigation by the Peruvian Forest Service found La Oroza had been cutting down cedar illegally and revoked the company's logging concession, according to the affidavit, which said there was probable cause to believe both companies violated the Lacey Act.
Between 2012 and 2015, Global Plywood imported more than 9,700 cubic meters of wood from La Oroza worth more than $3.6 million, the affidavit said.
La Oroza did not immediately respond to calls and emails to offices in Peru requesting comment.
LOSING THE FOREST
Peru's Amazonian tropical forest is second in size to Brazil's. The country loses approximately 1,100 square miles of forest per year, and an estimated 80 percent of logging in Peru is illegal according to the World Bank. A 2006 report by the bank said the illegal trade in the country generated between $44.5 million and $72 million annually.
The profit motive is large. A single Peruvian mahogany tree can be sold for more than $11,000 on the U.S. lumber market, according to a study by the Environmental Investigation Agency, or EIA, a London-based nonprofit.
Partly as a result of the 2009 U.S.-Peru free trade agreement, Peru enacted tougher laws and created specialized agencies to fight illegal harvesting, according to the EIA's Julia Urrunaga. Companies must submit an application to the Peruvian government that identifies the location, volume and type of wood harvested each year.
A 2012 EIA study said exporters can sidestep Peruvian regulations by routinely falsifying documents and permits. The study found more than 100 timber shipments to the United States between January 2008 and May 2010 contained illegally logged trees, 35 percent of all shipments leaving Peru during that time.
The investigation of Global Plywood began when Peruvian Customs and Forest Service officials in September contacted U.S. authorities about a massive shipment of wood aboard a vessel en route to the Port of Houston, the affidavit said. Peruvian authorities found that more than 90 percent of the wood aboard a ship named Yacu Kallpa, which mostly contained wood from La Oroza en route to Global Plywood, had been harvested illegally in Peru.
In November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection blocked its importation to the United States. That move, along with additional seizures of timber by officials in Peru, set off street protests by supporters of the lumber industry in logging towns. Demonstrators carried coffins symbolically emblazoned with the names of forestry inspectors.
The shipment, containing some 3.8 million pounds of wood, is languishing in the Port of Houston, according to a Homeland Security spokesman in Texas.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Amy Stevens; Editing by David Gregorio)