John McGlocklin and Frank Merry
The unfortunate truth of deforestation for the tropical timber industry—as for biodiversity, climate, hydrological systems and simple natural beauty—is that land once productive now becomes an unusable catastrophic loss.
But somehow, logging, which depends on forest for its existence, is inextricably linked to the process that ensures its demise.
The reality is that logging of tropical forests–when done poorly–can degrade forests and can facilitate deforestation, but does not require deforestation as part of its value chain in the same way as ranching, soy beans, or any other production activity.
Even mixed cropping systems such as agroforestry require, for the most part, that native forest be removed before their own ‘regenerative’ activities become a positive contribution to the environment.
But yet, the predominant view of wood production from tropical forests is negative. In a recent article on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, the Guardian newspaper, reporting on data produced by the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE), leads with a photo of “illegal” logs. And an earlier report the Guardian leading with a photo of a log deck perpetuates the same message. While the international press is often at pains to–correctly–point out the effects of soy beans and cattle ranching as leading drivers of deforestation, they don’t often parse out the complex role of forests and forestry in the equation, and prefer to simply lump timber harvest in with deforestation, when it is objectively different.
Timber management in tropical forests requires standing forests. This fact alone separates it from other production activities and creates the potential for well managed production forests to be part of a mix of land uses that will create economic development in better harmony with nature than we currently have.
When done well—and all of the techniques and methods are widely available for this to happen—it can provide economic activity and growth to a region while maintaining a standing, working, forest.
This is not to say that all forest should be logged. There is a substantial argument for protected areas where no economic activity occurs, and indeed, some deforestation may need to happen for economic growth, but there is a substantive argument that a well-managed tropical forest estate can be part of a productive and sustainable landscape.
So, why then do most people view topical forestry in a negative light and why does the tropical timber sector seem fail to reach its potential as a positive actor? There are, perhaps, three main reasons:
- Corruption and by extension enforcement. The timber sector often works on the farthest reaches of the frontier where enforcement and chain of custody are notoriously difficult. Certification, and in particular the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), has filled some of this void but it is not sufficient and we, as part of the wood value chain, must continue to be vigilant and check our supply chains. Request, demand, and get as much documentation as possible.
- Legislation and development support. In Brazil, for example, logging is considered an ‘extractive’ industry not a ‘productive’ one and so is ineligible for many economic development support programs that would allow it to compete effectively with other land uses that currently receive subsidies. Also, in Brazil, again, you cannot own land and leave it in forest. It is then considered ‘unproductive’ and subject to expropriation.
- The overarching view. Society, as demonstrated by the current reports, conflates tropical timber management with deforestation and its attendant ills, when this is not a complete truth. Even civil society organizations (environmental and social non-profits with their philanthropic and governmental support networks) tend to view timber management for wood production with some disdain and do not give it its due.
It is then perhaps up to us, in the wood industry and beyond, to get the message out: deforestation does not help the timber industry and it is land, not logs, that is the main driver of forest removal. Let’s get tropical timber management back on the front burner as a solution, not a problem, to our environmental issues of the day.