Saving What Remains

LOGGING: Timber certification, trade restrictions

July 23, 2012


Although as much as 80 percent of tropical timber is consumed internally by producing nations, consumption of tropical timber by the U.S. and other industrial countries plays a significant role in tropical deforestation. The U.S., with less than 5 percent of the world's population, is the second largest importer of tropical timber, shelling out more than $5.4 billion annually for 21 million cubic meters of industrial roundwood, sawnwood, veneer, and plywood from the tropics. Additional tropical timber comes to the U.S. as finished products from China. The best actions to reduce the damage caused by logging activities are to impose strict restrictions, even banning, imports of certain tropical hardwoods; developing more sustainable means of extracting rainforest timber; certifying timber with regards to its origins and whether it was responsibly harvested; and using alternatives to tropical wood products.

Restricting Timber Trade

Country1000 m3Value ($ million)
S. Korea8,272.71$1,581.39

Restricting or banning the import of certain tropical woods that cannot reasonably be harvested without considerable damage to the rainforest—like mahogany, ceiba, and ebony—is a highly controversial issue. Usually the restriction of trade in certain species is established by listing the species on CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) but this sometimes has the effect of driving up prices for banned wood, making harvesting even more profitable.

The restriction of trade by listing certain species on CITES is controversial because the practice tends to discriminate against developing countries with limited consequences for developed nations. Environmental advocates have encouraged the governments of industrialized countries to list a number of tropical timber species found in tropical countries. Critics argue who has the right to determine which species are listed? What are the rights of the affected country? What compensation is due to the affected country? Can we reasonably expect developing countries to absorb the economic costs imposed by industrialized countries?

These questions need to be addressed to ensure relative equality in the international market and to make the program viable. In addition, the listing of species on CITES is difficult because of a lack of adequate information on traded timber species. Few know how many individuals of a particular species exist in the wild and how that species is affected by trade. Furthermore, trade of particular species is poorly tracked and many harvested species are difficult to distinguish from one another.

The aim of restricting trade of tropical tree species is to slow deforestation caused by the extraction of certain tree species. The hope is that listing a species will essentially take it off the open market, reducing forest clearing for its specific harvesting. Though illegal logging and smuggling may thrive, total traffic in the species may decline.

The governments of consuming countries are also establishing legal mechanisms for prohibiting illicit timber imports. In 2008 the U.S. revised the Lacey Act to govern the sourcing of timber products. The E.U. passed a similar rule — called FLEG-T — shortly thereafter. Both regulations put the burden of responsibility for ensuring timber legality on importing companies, holding them to the environmental laws of producing countries, even when those countries are unwilling or unable to enforce their rules. Companies found to be sourcing illegally logged timber are potentially subject to fines or worse. Gibson Guitar was the first company found to be violating the Lacey Act when it imported ebony from the rainforests of Madagascar.

The response of tropical governments to slow the depletion of timber resources or increase revenue has typically been to restrict the export of raw logs and encourage the exports of value-added products like sawnwood and furniture. The idea is that instead of exporting raw materials at a low profit, a country can increase national revenue by exporting products that have a higher value and stimulate domestic industry. Many countries including Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, Gabon, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea have implemented log export moratoriums at various times since the 1990s to foster the development of value-added product industries. Some of these bans are still in effect.

A second national response to widespread logging is to issue a temporary moratorium on all logging operations to create a window for the government to reassert control in the forestry sector. In the 1990s to mid-2000s, Suriname, Guyana, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo implemented issued such moratoriums in response to the accelerating inflow of foreign timber firms. However, such moratoriums are difficult to uphold, especially with understaffed forestry departments. Felling often continues, and temporary export bans are easily bypassed with widespread smuggling, often in conjunction with political figures or the military.

In 2011 Indonesia established a two-year moratorium on new logging and plantation concessions across 14.5 million hectares of primary forest and peatlands as part of its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program. The government of Norway jump-started the program with a billion dollar pledge in 2010.

Timber Certification

FSC-certified forests as of Aug 2012

Million hectares
Latin America11.517235
North America64.43206

International trade in forest products is affected by environmental concerns, though trade actions alone cannot ensure the sustainable management of forests. Timber certification operates on the assumption that consumers are willing to pay a premium on products harvested in a sustainable manner, by labeling such products with a "seal of approval." One of the better-known timber certification agencies is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) [news and information], an international non-profit membership-based organization which confirms that timber and other forest products are coming from sustainably managed forests. As of January 2006, FSC has certified more than 388.7 million acres (157.3 million ha) of forest in 80 countries. With eco-labeling, consumers know if products come from responsibly managed forest, and will be able to make an informed choice.

In recent years, the number of timber certification schemes has surged, but demand is strong in only a limited number of markets, mostly Europe and to a lesser degree, the United States. Certification and eco-labeling has benefitted from the development of green building standards like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

There are several challenges facing the certification movement including: a limited number of forests that can meet the strict requirements of certification, the lack of an adequate definition of what constitutes sustainable forestry, limited consumer interest in products from sustainably managed forests, ignorance of forest owners on how to meet certification standards, greenwashing by firms that fail to responsibly manage forests, and hostile international relations between forest-product producers and consumer countries. Critics and supporters alike realize that certification, can act as a sort of non-tariff trade discrimination. Those countries (usually tropical countries) which are unable or unwilling to manage forests in a sustainable way can suffer from a shift toward more certification, while consumer countries like the United States and Europe are relatively unaffected. Interests in some tropical countries at times play up certification as an issue of sovereign rights in an attempt to deepen a wedge between environmental and economic concerns.

The FSC is not without controversy. Some environmentalists say its standards are too weak to ensure actual sustainable forest management. Critics from the forestry sector argue that the standards discriminate against small loggers, especially those in poor countries, and the certification process primarily benefits rich-world auditors.

Articles on rainforest certification Certification news feed

Ending Subsidies

Perhaps a more effective national response is to end subsidies that stimulate deforestation. By ending subsidies for sawmills and road construction, logging of tropical rainforests will more accurately reflect the true costs of harvesting. For example, in several African countries extraction and production costs outpace revenues so that cash-poor governments end up essentially subsidizing the logging industry using donor funds or other revenue sources (corrupt officials however may benefit from these sorts of activities). In Indonesia, where ex-president Suharto's circle of wealthy friends in the timber and plantation industries used to get large tax breaks, the government kept pulp-wood prices artificially low, using subsidies to ensure that paper mills were profitable. These types of subsidies are not in the national interest, since they benefit only a small group of individuals.

Logs piled up at a sawmill in Java. Click on image for more photos from Java. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • What is sustainable forestry? Can logging be sustainable?
  • How does timber certification work?
  • How can Western consumers help encourage eco-friendly logging?
  • How do subsidies drive deforestation?

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