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January 2001
Ending Tropical Logging by Cutting Demand

By Tim Keating


Last month I wrote of the mass extinction of Earth’s 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. That’s 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, isn’t plutonium. It isn’t uranium. It isn’t dioxins or furans. It isn’t carbon dioxide or CFCs. It’s tropical hardwoods.

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 world’s 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 undisturbed forests.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that mahogany grows in densities of only about one or two individual trees per acre. It’s 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-clear—meaning 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. That’s 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 legal operations.

In 1994 Greenpeace showed that 80 percent of mahogany exports from Brazil and Bolivia were coming from illegal operations—logged 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 Indonesia’s 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 that’s 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 unlogged.

Seventy percent of Brazil’s 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 world’s 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 more important?

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


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