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Is there a tropical timber crisis?

For such a simple question, there are no easy answers.

Every day, woodworkers are faced with the dilemma over whether to use tropical species in their projects. Should they believe the environmentalists who propagate the claim that timber logging is causing rampant destruction of flora and fauna, killing the indigenous people, and affecting the global climate? Legislators in Baltimore, Md., San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., believe them, passing legislation banning the use of tropical timbers in new municipal projects. The state of Arizona also believes these claims. Since 1990, it has prohibited the use of tropical hardwoods in state-financed projects.

Or should woodworkers believe statistics cited by NASA, universities and industry groups which claim that timber logging is not destroying the rain forests. Rather than being a cause of poverty and rampant deforestation, timber harvesting instead puts a value on the lumber, thereby providing an economic base for these people. Forest sustainability practices, rather than slash and burning/clearcutting, can be cited as a direct result of timber harvesting. (The International Wood Products Assn. and Rainforest Action Network debate this issue in this month's point/counterpoint, beginning on page 86.)

The tropical forests

Almost one-third of the world's land, 4,060 million hectares, is covered by forests and other wooded land, according to Peter Schroder, Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry, Germany, in his "Overview of Boreal and Temperate Zone Forests." Of this, approximately half are designated temperate and boreal forests. The concentration of boreal forests are in South America and Africa, including, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia and the Cameroons.

However, controversy - and confusion - reigns over who to believe regarding the amount of destruction caused by man in these forests. Environmental groups throw out figures such as "a football field a minute." This is countered by reports, such as that found in December 13, 1993's U.S. News & World Report which states, "the average rate of rain forest loss was 3.7 million acres per year, or about one-fifth the widely accepted number."

Many U.S. furniture manufactures also agree that the so-called timber crisis is one created by minds, not by facts, said Doug Brackett, executive director of the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn.

"We do not feel that there is a tropical timber crisis relative to the raw materials that we use, generally speaking, which come from the tropical forests," said Brackett. "We believe there is a tropical forest crisis because there is this hysteria taking place that all of this land is being devastated. But the issue, it seems to me, goes to who is involved here. And it is not the people who are taking timber out for timber use. As I understand it, the problem is about overpopulation - people gouging out new places to farm and raise cattle."

Industry's claim: Logging is not the problem; it is a solution

The primary causes of tropical deforestation are: agriculture, which includes clearcutting for arable land and pastures; mining; and logging for timber import. According to the National Hardwood Lumber Assn.'s Forest Resource Fact Book, "Nearly half the rain forest area that is cleared is done by landless farmers for shifting cultivation. Clearing land for permanent agriculture, including resettlement programs, is the second biggest cause of deforestation. Wood for heating and cooking by the rural poor is the third."

This theory is also echoed by the Institut fur Weltwirtschaft Kiel for Greenpeace e.V. Hamburg which studied the sources of deforestation for Brazil, Indonesia and Cameroon. According to the study, between 1981 and 1990 forestry accounted for only 2 percent of deforestation in Brazil, 9 percent in Indonesia and 0 percent in the Cameroons. In all three of these countries, agriculture was by fir the leading source of deforestation. accounting for 91 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent in these three countries respectively.

"Even if the entire trade in tropical timber stopped at this very moment, you would still have 99 percent of the deforestation issue left to address," said Robert Waffle, director of government affairs for the International Wood Products Assn. "Contrary to what some of the activist groups would have you believe, if consumers boycott these products, or if there would be a serious reduction in wood use, the incentive to provide these benefits would disappear in the dust of poor people clearing the forests."

Brackett said, "The real hazard of the Rainforest Action Network and so many other environmental groups is that they don't want you to cut down any tree and it doesn't make any difference what (type) it is."

Yves DesMarais, president of both the Architectural Woodwork Institute and Hollywood Woodworking, said. "We feel that boycotting species of wood from the tropical forest will take all of the value away from the wood itself, and then (the indigenous people) will have no other alternative but to burn it.

"What worries US about some of the environmental groups' call for boycotts is that it will take all the value away from the wood and will be very destructive. We are trying to do the reverse. We are trying to increase the value and help those developing countries develop sustained forest policies," he added.

Environmentalists: 'One tree cut is one too many'

Earth First!, widely considered by many to be the most radical of all environmental groups, is so against the cutting of trees that it has publicly advocated the spiking of trees to prevent sawing. Earth First! is also the same group that published in its Journal a call for "Eco-Kamikazes" - terminally ill "Earth defenders" - to go out with a bang by strapping themselves with explosives and taking out a bridge, dam or "industrial polluters."

And although not as physically aggressive as Earth First!, Rainforest Action Network is considered by many industry associations to be aligned with this extreme environmental group with respect to shared agendas, including organized boycotting of two of the largest lumber/board companies in the United States.

According to Atossa Soltani, tropical timber campaigner for RAN, "Logging is the primary cause of rain forest destruction because it opens up millions of acres to subsequent activities like mining and ranching." She adds, "What kind of a defense is it for the timber industry simply to say it's not the whole problem. It's the equivalent of: 'I'm not guilty, your honor. My accomplices fired more shots than I did.'

"After 10 years of attempting to reform the industry, we must recognize the obstacles to policing profit-driven corporations in remote regions. Instead, we call for a halt to industrial logging in tropical rainforests," Soltani said.

RAN's programs include stopping the import of hardwoods from primeval tropical rainforests; a campaign against a Hawaiian power project, a campaign against Mitsubishi, which it considers "possibly the world's largest corporate destroyer of rainforests;" and most importantly, a call to reduce by 75 percent, wood usage in the United States in the next 10 years. Called the Tomales Bay Declaration for Forests, the purpose is to not only stop the deforestation of all tropical timber, but to lessen the burden on domestic forests as well, said Soltani.

RAN's recent attempt, along with other environmental groups, to gain a moratorium on mahogany logging through the "Mahogany is Murder" campaign, has also not endeared it to the woodworking industry. (See sidebar on Mahogany rejected for CITES listing).

Said Brackett, "Our primary interest in the tropical forest is ensuring that there's an ongoing supply of mahogany available. It's my understanding that mahogany trees do not grow in stands like pine trees. Just to take mahogany trees out would not create the kind of devastation that the environmental folks are implying goes on. If the issue can be handled on the basis of what impact does the extracting of mahogany have on the tropical forest, I think it would be minimal. If the issue is how much of the tropical forest is being removed for whatever reason - farming, slash and burn - then it becomes a problem because of the response by the public at large."

Added DesMarais, "A lot of the mahoganies are coming from sustained forests. Many are coming from Brazil, through the Tropical Forest Foundation. It's a multi-million dollar operation, trying to help develop models for foresting in a sustainable way."

Compromise: The Tropical Forest Foundation

A form for achieving a common ground between environmentalists, scientists and industry was created through the inception of the Tropical Forest Foundation. Founded in 1990, the Tropical Forest Foundation's mission is the "promotion of sustainable economic development in the world's tropical forests." The board is comprised of industry representatives, including the AWI and IHPA, as well as environmentalists, conservationists, tropical forest scientists and academics.

The non-profit group promotes education regarding specifications of tropical woods and how to avoid species which show scientific evidence that they are in danger of extinction. Using an extensive data base, TFF will recommend lesser known species which are "equally interesting and beautiful." Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary of environmental and external affairs of the Smithsonian Institution, is chairman of the TFF. Keister Evans is the executive director.

For more information on TFF, contact the foundation at: 1725 Duke St., Ste. 660. Alexandria, Va. 22314; (703) 518-8834 or FAX (703) 518-8974.


The most recent international debate between industry and environmentalists occurred at the Ninth Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, held last November in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

There, by a margin of six votes, the placement of Honduras mahogany (Swietenia Macrophylla) on the CITES Appendix II listing was defeated.

Several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, argued for placement of this species on the CITES listing. For U.S. woodworkers, listing on Appendix II of CITES would have severely restricted importation of mahogany into the U.S. In addition, countries exporting mahogany would first have to prove that in export would not be detrimental to the species before receiving an export permit.

Mahogany is used extensively in the United States, both in furniture and architectural woodworking. For the first half of 1994, the most recent figures available, the U.S. imported 57,665 cubic meters of mahogany lumber, at a value of $24,226,628. For all of 1993, the United States imported 98,293 cubic meters of mahogany lumber, at a value of $53,338,901, said Robert Waffle, director of government affairs for the International Wood Products Assn.

If the Appendix II proposal had passed, mahogany would have joined afrormosia (Pericopsis elata) for listing as a species that may become threatened if trade is not controlled. Under Appendix II, although trade is not prevented, it is regulated under a permit system.

Species listed under Appendix I are prohibited from commercial trade. Under special circumstances, trade is allowed for scientific or conservation purposes. Listed species include Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Karen Koenig

Jean Headley contributed to this report.
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Title Annotation:includes sidebar; opposing views of wood products industry and environmental groups
Author:Koenig, Karen Malamud
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Previous Article:Finish a bright spot for office furniture maker.
Next Article:Every tree killed equals another life lost.

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