Uncovering Inequality’s Roots in Timber Poaching

June 16, 2021

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The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, at right, interviewing community leader Ruhiler Aguirre Mishaja at the site of illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon. Click to enlarge.

FEJ StoryLog: Uncovering Inequality’s Roots in Timber Poaching

By Lyndsie Bourgon

I have been researching and reporting on timber poaching since 2012, when news spread of an ancient cedar tree that was poached from Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park in British Columbia.

The story hooked me. I began reading up on the history of timber poaching, its ubiquitous nature in the Pacific Northwest, and then, later, the vast tracts of forest being poached in the Amazon, Eastern Europe and Asia.

After studying oral history as a storytelling technique, I knew there was an opportunity to conduct in-depth interviews in regions where the timber industry had enacted vast changes to the landscape.

I wanted to focus on the murky ground of motive: If timber poaching is an epidemic in North America (as one forest manager has said), how did we get here? And are the driving factors in the Amazon similar to our own Pacific Northwest region?

These were big questions that, at least in the short term, would not likely guarantee a tight narrative.


The proposal focused not only on the

devastating ecological impacts of poaching

but on human experiences as well.


So, in applying for a National Geographic Explorer grant for a magazine story, I proposed visiting some of the most poached forests in Peru: those in the Madre de Dios region and in the rainforest surrounding Pucallpa. The proposal focused not only on the devastating ecological impacts of poaching but on human experiences as well.

At the same time, I applied for SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism, supporting storytelling in the Amazon.

I was fortunate to win both grants, enabling me to spend six weeks in Peru with journalist and translator Milton Lopez Tarabochia, conducting dozens of interviews in rural areas.

The FEJ grant covered travel and lodging while in Peru. Overland travel had to be arranged with private companies or locals, either on backroads or by riverboats. Most of the time we stayed in hostels in nearby cities, but we also bought tents and supplies to spend nights in areas of Madre de Dios.


International reporting requires planning

One challenge with international reporting is the need (and desire) to plan for an outcome that, once you’re on the ground, may have to be tossed. I knew, heading into the Amazon, that reporting abroad requires patience and an open attitude, alongside a focus on the story itself. I approached my assignment with that in mind.

Because I work using a combination of journalistic storytelling practices and oral history interviewing techniques, I knew that I would likely need to spend more time in particular locations than may be conventional for reporting a straightforward magazine piece.


Here was an unexpected and

eye-opening experience: environmental

crime precipitated by inequality.


So I planned to camp for multiple nights in the communities where I conducted interviews. That led to longer and more multifaceted interviews that delved deeper into history and traditional knowledge.

In one instance, community members ended up guiding me and Milton deep into a forest concession, showing us not only the destruction of the poaching, but the squatter encampment built by economically disenfranchised poachers as well.

Here was an unexpected and eye-opening experience, and one that linked to my reporting in North America: environmental crime precipitated by inequality.


Unexpected challenges, invaluable experience

Inevitably, unexpected challenges arose: For one, my equipment was fine enough for standard interviews, but in the end could not be used to produce a more multimedia feature for National Geographic (Milton and I underestimated the power of insects and the difficulty of working through bites and buzzing).

The author. Photo: Stacey Krolow Photography. Click to enlarge.

The sounds in the jungle were so rich and layered that a better recorder would have captured those and, so, offered greater nuance in interviews conducted while hiking or in the field. On the other hand, my iPhone took good enough photos that I could have relied on it rather than toting my digital camera.

Another challenge was food. I did get sick at one point, waylaying me for a couple of days and shifting my reporting in one community.

But these were challenges that could have only been prepared for after walking the forest floor: My next grant application will surely consider equipment needs alongside daily costs of living while on the road.

Once I returned to Canada, National Geographic published a feature on my time in the Amazon, “Indigenous People Battle Squatters and Timber Poachers in Peru's Amazon.”

And the work that SEJ helped support was used, as well, to develop a successful book proposal about timber poaching. My first book, “Tree Thieves,” will be published in the United States, Canada and the U.K. in 2022.

There’s no doubt it’s worth it to spend your time applying for story grants. Even if you don’t get the grant, you will gain invaluable experience in the application process. And one parting tip, good for the application process and on the reporting side: Always do more research than you think is necessary.

Lyndsie Bourgon is a writer, oral historian and a 2018 National Geographic Explorer. She writes about the environment and its entanglement with history, culture and identity. Her oral history research focuses on the social and cultural experiences of natural resource extraction and land management. Bourgon’s work has been published in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, National Geographic, the Guardian, the Oxford American, Aeon, The Walrus, Hazlitt and elsewhere.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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