Illegally logged timber in Brazil is being laundered on a massive and growing scale and then sold on to unwitting buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China, Greenpeace claimed on Thursday.

After a two-year investigation, the environmental campaign group says it has uncovered evidence of systematic abuse and a flawed monitoring system that contradicts the Brazilian government’s claims to be coping with the problem of deforestation in the Amazon.

In a report released on Thursday, Greenpeace cited five case studies of the fraudulent techniques used by the log launderers, including over-reporting the number and size of rare trees, logging trees protected by law, and over-extraction. It notes how forest management officials are implicated in the wrongdoing and several have previously been fined or detained for similar crimes in the past.

Far more than half of the wood from the two biggest timber producing regions of Brazil probably comes from illegal sources, it says, citing figures from the Brazilian environmental research NGO, Imazon, that 78% of the wood shipped from the vast Amazonian state of Pará is illegally felled, while the figure is 54% in Mato Grosso.

“Logging in the Brazilian Amazon is absolutely out of control. The current control system is being used to launder illegal timber,” said Marcio Astrini, a campaigner who was part of the two-year investigation.

Widespread abuse of the current regulations for timber extraction allow illegal loggers to acquire dubiously obtained credits, according to environmental campaigners and federal prosecutors.

With little oversight, big landowners obtain permission to cut down more trees than they intend to log and then sell on unused credits to lumber mills and other farmers.

The investigation is likely to increase pressure on the government to tighten its monitoring and certification systems to minimise the damage done to the Amazon, the world’s biggest forest.

Logging is often the first step towards deforestation. The extraction of the most valuable trees, such as Apé, reduces canopy cover and opens up paths into the forest that are often later used to start fires for illegal land clearance.

Estimates of the scale of the problem are based on satellite date analysis by Imazon. Using publicly available images, the organisation traces the degree of degradation of key areas in the Amazon, estimates the amount of timber felled in unauthorised areas and then compares this with official figures for timber sales.

According to Paulo Barreto of Imazon, the situation is rapidly getting worse. He says the area illegally logged increased by 151% in Pará and by 63% in Mato Grosso between 2011 and 2012.

Greenpeace says this data and the findings of their investigation point to alarming gaps in the government’s control system.

“The government is failing to inspect, or verify when they grant permission for logging,” said Astrini. “The government system is weak, insecure and incapable of assuring customers that they are buying sustainable timber. As a result, buyers in Brazil and overseas are involuntarily financing crime.”

The government has recognised problems in the system, though it disputes the scale of the illegal logging. Last month, the Brazilian Environment Ministry said fraud in Pará was responsible for the unlawful sale of 26.8 million cubic metres of forest products.

It admitted that the control system used by the state is also flawed. In Santarem – one of the biggest cities in Pará – the authorities are also investigating a local environment ministry chief who is alleged to have colluded with logging firms.

Government officials say they have identified the loopholes and are acting to tighten the system. But federal prosecutors in Pará are unconvinced by the results so far.

“Certainly the situation is not improving. It may be the same as before or it may be getting worse,” said Bruno Valente, the federal prosecutor in Pará State.

He said the authorities needed to tighten the control system and increase the number of monitors checking the veracity of logging claims.

Greenpeace also alleged that UK high street building supply chain Jewson had been selling Ipe wood from Para state without being able to show the documents that prove it is not illegal.

“Jewson sources its timber, including the rare species Ipe, from International Timber,” said a Greenpeace spokesman. Both are owned by the French multinational, Saint Gobain.

Greenpeace’s spokesman added: “We asked Jewson what steps it was taking to ensure its Brazilian timber was legal. The company said it ‘fully recognised the importance of auditable and independent certification’ and said its ‘priority was always to ask for Chain of Custody certified product wherever possible’.”

The environment group group has asked the UK National Measurements Office to conduct urgent checks on Jewson and other companies known to be importing Brazilian Amazon timber into the UK.

A spokesman for Jewson said: “Jewson fully recognises its obligation in regards to the important issue of the importation of timber and acts strictly in accordance with the EU timber regulation. Jewson primarily acts as a trader in relation to these regulations and as such its obligation relates primarily to keeping detailed records of the sources of all timber purchased and where this timber is then sold.

“Jewson also complies with the UK government’s timber procurement policy, which additionally requires that only timber and wood-derived products originating from an independently verifiable legal and sustainable source will be purchased for use on the government estate, with documentation required to prove it.

“With regards specifically to Brazilian timber we are committed to ensure the legality of our timber, and take extensive steps to gather all the necessary evidence from suppliers regarding its legality including the collection of the following documents: The validated authorisation of the landowner with the document which defines the longitude and latitude areas and volume of the area, together with the sale agreement between the landowner and logger: GF3 and DOF and PEFC or FSC if appropriate.

“Jewson is very happy to work closely with Greenpeace and other similar organisations in order to address any specific questions they may have in a constructive and collaborative way.

“At this stage, however, Jewson have not been presented with any specific, detailed questions, or allegations about illegal timber. If they were, this would be treated extremely seriously and would be investigated and appropriate action taken immediately.”

International Timber were contacted by the Guardian but had not replied before publication.

Jonathan Watts and John Vidal, the guardian

This article first appeared in the guardian

Edie is part of the guardian environment network

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