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Should the furniture industry be concerned about using imported tropical wood products?

Import statistics suggest that the U.S. furniture industry's role in tropical deforestration is negligible.

It has been estimated that mature tropical forests once covered 1.5 billion hectares, but now only 900 million hectares of forest remain. Some suggest that at the present rate of deforestation, estimated at 1.8 percent per year, the remaining tropical forests will be consumed in another 55 years. However, much uncertainty surrounds both the extent and rate of decline of the tropical forest. This makes accurate analysis concerning the impact of logging on deforestation difficult.

The uncertainty over the impact of logging tropical forests has made the importation of tropical hardwood a controversial issue in the United States. Some environmental organizations have called on some governments to ban all imports of tropical timber. These organizations have also urged consumers to boycott the purchase of such products. Other environmental organizations feel that ban/boycott strategies are impractical. These organizations also realize that without economic incentives, conversion of forests to non-wood producing land uses will accelerate.

The U.S wood furniture industry is a user of tropical forest products. Because this industry is responsive to the concerns of its customer, many furniture producers want to know the impact their industry is having on the tropical rain forests. This paper examines the causes of tropical deforestation and the impact of U.S. furniture imports of tropical hardwood products on tropical ecosystems.


The tropical deforestation issue

Although many suggest that the trade in tropical wood products is the primary source of deforestation, the root causes of tropical deforestation are poverty and overpopulation. According to several sources, there are four other specific causes of tropical forest depletion that are more significant than the trade in tropical wood products. Shifting cultivation by landless, impoverished farmers account for an estimated 60 to 64 percent of the hectares of tropical forests destroyed annually. Fuelwood gathering and charcoal production account for 22 percent of tropical deforestation. Cattle ranching in Latin America destroys about 5 to 10 percent of the tropical rain forest. Industrial development, such as road building, mining, dam construction, and plantations account for an additional 5 to 8.5 percent of the tropical deforestation. At most, only 4 percent of the harvest from tropical forests is exported as some form of forest.

Despite the relatively minor role of tropical timber trade among the causes of tropical deforestation, forest products trade has received attention for several reasons. First, logging activities provide access to the forest and is thus considered by some to be the first link in forest destruction activities. Second, logging for export generally selects few species and utilizes heavy harvesting equipment in contrast to domestic consumption activities. Third, environmental group members may directly act upon tropical timber trade through purchasing pressures to effect change. Last, solutions to the fundamental problems such as poverty, overpopulation, and land tenure are unrealistic in the short term.

The relative impact of U.S. furniture industry imports of tropical hardwood products on tropical ecosystems

The total U.S. consumption of tropical forest products shown in Table 1 represents less than 4 percent of the world's tropical forest product trades. Table 1 also provides estimates of the U.S. furniture industry's use of tropical hardwood imports (percent by value) in 1993. As shown in this table, the furniture industry consumed approximately 24 percent of the total value of tropical hardwood, 42.5 percent of the lumber, and 35 percent of the veneer imported in 1993. The total consumption of tropical forest products by the furniture industry represents less than 30 percent of U.S. imports.

Using the information presented in this paper, the impact of the U.S. furniture industry consumption on tropical deforestation can be calculated as follows:

(1) world trade in tropical forest products represent roughly 4 percent of tropical deforestation;

(2) the United States consumed less than 4 percent of all tropical timber traded globally; and

(3) the furniture industry consumes less than 30 percent of the volume of U .S. tropical timber imports:

(0.04) x (0.04) x (0.3) = 0.00048

Therefore, according to our calculations, the U.S. furniture industry's consumption of tropical timber product accounts for less than 5 hundredths of one percent of tropical forest harvest. This estimate is consistent with the previous finding by the International Hardwood Product Association that the U.S. wood products industry as a whole accounts for approximately seven hundredths of one percent of all tropical forest degradation.


The United States accounts for only a small part of the global trade of tropical timber products. The most recent data indicate that the United States only imported 4 percent of total volume of tropical timber traded in 1989. There is little evidence to suggest that this percent has increased significantly in the 1990s.

Consumption of tropical timber products by the U.S. furniture industry accounts for an estimated 27.9 percent of the value of all tropical products imported in 1993. Overall, the U.S. furniture industry's consumption of tropical material was estimated to represent less than five hundredths of 1 percent of the world's tropical forest harvest.


Anonymous. 1993. International Hardwood Products Association publication.

Eastin, I. 1992. A framework for assessing strategic options in responding to boycotts: Ghana and the tropical hardwood boycott in Europe. Pullman, University of Washington. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation.

FAO yearbook of forest products 1979-1990. 1992. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 332 p.

FAO yearbook of forest products; the directions of trade 1985-1989. 1991. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 306 p.

Hamilton, L.S. 1990. Boycotts of tropical timber products will not stop deforestation. Position paper. Environment and Policy Institute, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Jagels, R. 1990. Alternatives to boycotting. Journal of Forestry, October, pp. 30-31.

Johnson, B. 1991. Responding to tropical deforestation; and eruption of crisis -- an array of solutions. World Wildlife Fund Publications. Panda House pubs, Godalming, U.K.

Mather, A.S. 1990. Global forest resources. Belhaven Press, London.

Myers, N. 1989. Deforestation rates. Tropical forests and their climatic implications. Friends of the Earth, London.

Myers, N. 1984. The primary source. W.W. Norton, New York.

Neotoux, F. and Y. Kuroda. 1990. Timber from the South Seas -- an analysis of Japan's tropical timber trade and its environmental impact. A World Wildlife Federation Inter. Pub. October. Gland, Switzerland.

Ozanne, L. and P. Smith. 1993. Strategies and perspectives of influential environmental organizations toward tropical deforestation. Forest Products Journal 43(4): 39-49.

Smith, P., M. Haas, and W.G. Luppold [in press]. An analysis of tropical hardwood product importation and consumption in the United States. Forest Products Journal.

Smith, P. and L. Ozanne. 1993. The environmental movement and tropical timber trade. Taiwan Forest Products Industries Journal 12(1): 1-17.

Sullivan, F. 1990. The fragile forest. Timber Trades Journal June 9: 12-13.

Vincent, J.R. 1990. Don't boycott tropical timber. Journal of Forestry. My chance. 88: 56. March.

Willie, C. 1991. Buy or boycott tropical hardwood? American Forests, July/August, p. 26.

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK.

William G. Luppold, Ph.D., is project leader, USDA Forest Service, Forestry Science Laboratory, Princeton, W.V. Paul M. Smith is assistant professor, Wood Products Marketing, School of Forest Resources, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa. Michael P. Haas is graduate research assistant, Wood Products Marketing, School of Forest Resources, Pennsylvania State University.
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Article Details
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Author:Hass, Michael P.
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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