Tropical Logging by Cutting Demand
Last month I wrote of the mass extinction of Earths
incredible biodiversity currently taking place due to the rapid and
accelerating loss of tropical forests, especially rainforests. This
loss is estimated to be 1.5 acres every second, leading to the extinction
of a conservatively estimated 383 species a day. Thats a species
extinction every 3.75 seconds due to the impact of human civilization.
There are many ways to reduce our individual and collective impact on
Earth. But the first and perhaps most important step we need to take
in my opinion may surprise you. We must stop the demand for tropical
timber. The single most destructive material stream in the world, biologically
speaking, isnt plutonium. It isnt uranium. It isnt
dioxins or furans. It isnt carbon dioxide or CFCs. Its tropical
Logging is the single greatest factor leading to the loss of rainforests.
In fact, logging for timber is the greatest factor in the loss of all
the worlds forests. But tropical forests are particularly vulnerable
to the impacts of logging. Logging in Southeast Asia, particularly in
Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, is the single greatest
cause of forest loss. In Africa and Central and South America, logging
roads precipitate forest clearing. Loggers seeking high-value species,
such as mahogany and ipê, bulldoze and cut roads into pristine
forests. These roads provide access for people seeking land for agriculture
and allow access to other extractive activities such as mining and oil
drilling (two other major causes of tropical forest destruction).
The demand for key tree species actually creates their high value and
enables loggers to bulldoze roads further and further into the forests
to cut and sell just the high-value species. Right now loggers in the
Amazon are extending the frontier of development into formerly
Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that mahogany grows in
densities of only about one or two individual trees per acre. Its
the same with ipê. In fact, almost all of the tropical species
that have a high value in the U.S. and other importing countries are
found scattered sparsely in the rainforests. This means that many acres
of forest must be logged for just a few trees. This problem is multiplied
(up to 10-fold) when orders call for long boards of clear
grade. Many importers demand the cream of the crop of this massive forest
liquidation. For instance, New York City orders ipê 2x4s of Fine
Export Quality (that is, 4-sides-clearmeaning no knots or defects
on any of the four sides for the entire length of the board) in lengths
up to 20 feet.
Our research, based on figures from a tropical forester, shows that,
for Fine Export Quality wood in lengths of seven feet or longer, as
little as ten board feet from an entire tree will meet that standard.
Since ipê, like mahogany, is found in densities of only one or
two trees per acre, half an acre is destroyed or damaged to get at the
one tree. A trail is cut to the tree for a truck-like machine, called
a skidder, to drag the tree to the landing area. A road is bulldozed
to each landing area for trucks to be loaded with these mostly illegal
logs. Research in the Amazon has shown that over 50 trees are killed
or damaged just to get at the two trees per acre. Thats up to
half the forest canopy destroyed directly.
An Illegal Trade
Much of the logging occurring in the tropics is done illegally,
even according to the laws of the exporting countries. In Brazil, Nicaragua,
Indonesia, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Cote de Ivoir, Cameroon, Bolivia
and elsewhere, illegal logging usually makes up the majority of exports.
Journalists and activists in the UK recently found that in a shipment
of mahogany that they traced from the rainforests of Brazil to the port
in England, only three percent of it could be proven to have come from
In 1994 Greenpeace showed that 80 percent of mahogany exports from Brazil
and Bolivia were coming from illegal operationslogged from parks,
preserves and indigenous reserves. The Brazilian intelligence agency
confirmed those figures and reported that 80 percent of all logging
in the Brazilian Amazon was being done illegally. In 1999, Indonesian
activists (and later admitted by the government) showed that over 50
percent of Indonesias timber exports were from illegal sources.
Illegal mahogany loggers have generated conflicts with indigenous people
in the Amazon, responsible for the deaths of members of at least eight
tribes. In the Philippines, farmers and activists have been beaten and
driven from their lands by loggers. In Africa, loggers pay hunters to
kill wild animals for food, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, then assist
with the sale of this bushmeat in towns by providing transport on logging
trucks. The fact is that logging is the single greatest cause of animal
death in the world.
But thats not all. This collateral damage ultimately spells doom
for the entire forest as landless cultivators, miners and others will
most likely make their way into the forest and complete the deforestation.
United Nations figures show that 70 percent of deforestation from shifting
cultivation is precipitated by logging roads. A report published by
the World Resources Institute showed that a logged tropical forest is
eight times more likely to be completely deforested than one remaining
Seventy percent of Brazils logged mahogany is exported. That is,
without demand for mahogany and other high-value woods there would be
little incentive for such illegal logging. In short, the demand for
tropical wood imports to the U.S., Japan and Europe is the key factor
that causes the chain of destruction.
Where it all Goes
Eighty percent of U.S. tropical imports are plywood, mostly from
Southeast Asia. The plywood, usually called lauan, is used underneath
floors, for interiors of mobile and manufactured homes and truck trailers,
theater and movie set construction, the facing of interior doors, furniture
backing and drawers, custom cabinets and picture frame backs. Mahogany
brought into the U.S. is used for expensive furniture, entry doors and
foyers, coffins, window frames, decking, flooring, cigar humidors and
small consumer items. Imported ipê and greenheart are used in
railings, park benches, boardwalks and bridge decking. Teak is used
for indoor and outdoor (garden) furniture, boat trim and decking, flooring,
paneling, bowls and kitchen items. Ramin is used for futon frames, dowels
and tool handles. Other tropical woods are used for railroad ties, flooring,
truck and shipping container floors, furniture and paneling, yacht interiors,
marine plywood, moldings and even pencils.
We must stop using tropical woods for these things immediately, and
we must get the companies and municipalities that are importing, using
and reselling tropical woods to stop as well.
More durable and less expensive recycled plastic lumber (RPL) is estimated
to last up to 100 years (or even longer), is guaranteed for 50 years
and can replace tropical woods in decking, benches and pilings. Other
recycled materials such as steel, aluminum and even paper can and must
be brought into greater use. Wood can be reclaimed from buildings being
torn down and from pallets and other normally single-use items.
But first and foremost, we must simply use less stuff, especially forest
products. We need to accept that our overconsumptive lifestyles are
the main factor in the loss of the worlds species, the death and
mutilation of billions of individual beings and the wiping out of entire
ecosystems. Together we can do this. Together we can end the demand
for tropical woods in the U.S., slow the logging of tropical forests
and thus slow the mass extinction of planet Earth. Could anything be
Tim Keating is co-founder and Executive Director of Rainforest
Relief, a New York-based organization that works through education and
direct-action campaigns to reduce the demand for wood products and materials,
which is driving the destruction of rainforests worldwide. For more
information or to volunteer, contact: (718) 398-3760 or email@example.com.