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Buy or boycott tropical hardwoods?

Should we consumers buy or boycott products made of tropical hardwoods? The question has generated lots of debate, Some creative responses, however, are beginning to emerge from the rhetorical thickets.

The Rainforest Action Network has been aggressive and clear in its position. In a news release last January, the San Francisco-based group urged consumers to make a New Year's resolution to "avoid all products made from imported tropical rainforest wood. - In Germany and the Netherlands, local governments have stopped using tropical timber in public construction. Last year, England's Prince Charles called on his countrymen to boycott tropical hardwoods from "unsustainable sources. " Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit state purchase of tropical timber.

Hardwood dealers, finding protests at the logging sites and boycott threats at home, are beginning to take notice. Foresters and conservationists cannot find consensus on the issue, and concerned consumers are left wondering whether or not to remodel the kitchen with mahogany-veneer cabinets or purchase teak furniture.

Ivan Ussach, director of the Rainforest Alliance's Tropical Timber Project, is struggling full-time with this question. The Rainforest Alliance (a New York City-based organization not to be confused with the more activistic Rainforest Action Network) likes to think of itself as an education and policy organization driven by science. In the tropical timber question, however, science is smothered by cut-and-run profits, emotion, tradition, and shortsighted economic policies.

In a recent address to the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP), Ussach said: Is the enormous rise in public concern over the fate of rainforests causing us to rethink our use of tropical forest products? I don't know. I don't hear many people discussing what sustainable banana production really means, much less calling for a coffee boycott, or, heaven forbid, a moratorium on chocolate. Where do people think these commodities come from, New Jersey? ... It's a lot easier to envision the forest when you're holding a piece of wood than when you're eating a chocolate sundae. "

Fair or not, Ussach emphasizes, tropical woods are going to the product that most people associate with the destruction of tropical forests, and boycott pressures will increase. many, is to break the links at our end, to avoid purchasing products that are clearly connected to the fall of tropical rainforest hardwoods.

But is a boycott of tropical woods an effective conservation strategy? Most analysts think not. Ken Snyder, tropical forest coordinator for the National Audubon Society, has studied the effectiveness of boycotts in conservation campaigns. Among his conclusions: "The majority of tropical forests are in countries experiencing extensive economic hardships and carrying massive loads of debt. These governments are stuck in a short-term mindset as they desperately exploit cash crops and natural resources in order to generate foreign currency. A boycott can put additional pressure on these fragile economies, hindering conservation programs and causing the government to increase exploitation of resources. "

Boycotts require huge amounts of funds, organization, and publicity.

These efforts, critics say, could be better used in educating the public about the complex causes of deforestation or in convincing our own government to reduce the debt pressure on tropical countries. Moreover, boycotts convince concerned consumers that they are contributing to a solution when in all likelihood they are not. This misuses the conservation community's most valuable resource -public concern and involvement.

Further, some foresters wonder if the buying habits of American consumers affect the issue at all, since only a small percentage of rainforest trees end up in the U.S. marketplace.

Robert Repetto, who studies the economics of deforestation for the World Resources Institute, estimates that 70 percent of the wood harvested in tropical countries is used locally, mainly for fuel. Many thousands of acres of forest are burned each year, simply to create farmland or pasture. Then there's japan. Measured by volume, the United States imports far less tropical wood than Japan does, and somewhat less than the Europeans.

In an anti-boycott statement, the International Hardwood Products Association says: -We understand that less than 6 percent of the trees cut in tropical countries end up in wood products in the international timber trade. The United States consumes a very small percentage of the tropical timber products which are exported worldwide. A U.S. boycott would not dent the rate of deforestation, or serve any constructive purpose in encouraging nations to properly care for their forests. Other consuming markets could easily and readily absorb that which would not enter this country. "

Still, pro-boycott forces, such as the Rainforest Action Network, would hold that individual consumers have a moral imperative not to participate in a market that is contributing to the destruction of the last tropical forests and extirpating the indigenous peoples who live there. In addition, boycotts can be a fast and effective way to raise public awareness about an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

Unlike the Rainforest Action Network, the Rainforest Alliance and the Sierra Club are searching for middle ground between thoughtless consumption and boycotting. The Rainforest Alliance has launched a program called Smart Wood that, according to project director Ivan Ussach, seeks to provide "incentives to conduct logging activities in ways that meet long-term environmental and social goals. " By identifying and promoting well-managed sources of tropical hardwoods, the Alliance hopes to instigate a kind of "reverse boycott.

After more than two years of consultations with foresters, conservationists, social scientists, and wood merchants around the world, Ussach has compiled a list of criteria and an evaluation process. The criteria are comprehensive, covering not only the usual silvicultural questions such as cutting rates and rotations, but also social questions such as land tenure, impact on local peoples, and control of colonization along logging roads.

Any company involved in harvesting or trading tropical woods may apply for Smart Wood certification and, if accepted, use the designation in their advertising.

Ussach had to overcome two difficult obstacles with this approach. First, no agreement exists on what defines sustainable forest management. " Second, according to World Resource Institute's Robert Repetto, Not even one-tenth of one percent of remaining tropical forests are being actively managed for sustained productivity. "

Still, Ussach has already located and certified a handful of suppliers, including: the State Forestry Corporation of Java, Indonesia, a major exporter of plantation teak and mahogany; and a coalition of small, wood-producing cooperatives in Honduras. Furniture companies using only Smart Wood include Kingsley-Bate, Ltd. in Arlington, Virginia, and the Plow and Hearth in Orange, Virginia.

We're not looking for perfection," Ussach says. "If a company is anywhere close to the guidelines, we'll consider it. But our credibility is on the line here. If we say someone is selling Smart Wood, we want to be absolutely confident."

The reaction to Smart Wood from timber producers and traders has been marked with enthusiasm, leading Ussach and others to believe that the program may actually encourage cutters and dealers to pay increased attention to ecological and social concerns.

Larry Williams, director of the Sierra Club's tropical forestry program, says that his organization is taking a different approach. Working with sympathetic congressional representatives, Sierra lobbyists have drafted legislation that would require all imported wood and wood products to be labeled as to country of origin. If this legislation is approved by Congress, the Sierra Club could then judge wood suppliers on a country-by-country basis.

"No tropical country is doing a great job of managing its forests," Williams says, "and some are doing an awful job. With this labeling program, consumers could at least avoid the worst of the worst."

Products would be labeled at the point of sale. For example, office furniture made in Taiwan with mahogany from the Ivory Coast would be so designated in the showroom or catalog.

Williams says that despite Japan's dominance of the tropical wood market, U.S. consumers have tremendous influence. "We have large visibility and an international leadership role. We set standards of behavior. No country wants to be seen as the bad guy. Both Japan and Brazil have already modified their behavior to avoid criticism. "

Although we U.S. consumers cannot stop tropical deforestation by simply altering our buying habits, we can certainly make a difference. Ivan Ussach says, "And doing something is better than doing nothing." AF
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Title Annotation:Special Coverage: Forests on a Shrinking Globe; includes related articles
Author:Wille, Chris
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:Watershed year for world forests.
Next Article:A vision in Mali.

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