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Lawsuit seeks to block mahogany imports

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday pressing the Bush administration to block imports of mahogany from Peru, claiming the wood was illegally harvested.

U.S. environmentalists and two Peruvian groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday pressing the Bush administration to block imports of mahogany from Peru.

The mahogany, harvested in protected natural areas of the Peruvian rain forest, is shipped to the United States for use in high-end furniture, automobile dashboards and fancy wood trim in homes.

The lawsuit alleges the imports violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, known as the international CITES treaty.

Big-leaf mahogany, grown in Central and South America is listed under the CITES treaty as endangered, requiring regulation through export permits. But the lawsuit contends Peruvian authorities have not been able to control illegal harvesting of the huge trees that grow to 500 feet or more and take 60 years to mature.

The suit, filed with the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, names the Department of Homeland Security, the Interior Department and the Department of Agriculture as well as three U.S. importers.

Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said because of the legal action the agency could not comment on the lawsuit. Interior officials also declined to comment on the lawsuit and Homeland Security did not immediately return a phone call.

The United States is the world’s largest importer of mahogany and the most lucrative market for the high-class big-leaf Peruvian timber. Big-leaf mahogany thrives in tropical forests from southern Mexico to the Amazon Basin. It is also found in Malaysia and Indonesia where the CITES listing does not apply.

“Millions of dollars worth of Peruvian mahogany enters U.S. ports every year in violation of U.S. and international law,” said Ari Hershowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group.

In addition to NRDC, the lawsuit was filed by two Peruvian advocacy groups — the Native Federation of Madre de Dios (FENAMAD) and Racimos de Ungurahui — that have been fighting the mahogany harvesting in Peru with little success.

The lawsuit contends that loggers illegally cut the mahogany in areas of the country that have been set aside for protection, plundering its resources and disrupting the lives of the indigenous people who live deep in the rain forest largely in voluntary isolation.