The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a report in December '97 which shows that the international timber trade is now the major cause of global forest destruction . The main findings of the report, entitled Bad Harvest? include:
This conclusion is based on a number of important findings resulting from:
For many years, the timber trade has claimed that it plays a negligible role in forest loss, and that most deforestation is caused by agricultural clearance or fuelwood collection. Population growth, rather than industrial exploitation has been blamed as the underlying problem. Research by WWF leads us to the opposite conclusion. Taking the survival of biodiversity as a major criterion, WWF concludes that the timber trade is currently the most important cause of loss and forest degradation in the world.
This judgment is based on several factors as examined below. There is no accident in the overlap between biologically rich forests and forests with large-scale timber operations. Areas of high biodiversity tend to to contain the oldest, and thus in many cases the largest and most commercially valuable, trees. Natural forests are often virtually unclaimed, under the stewardship of politically weak indigenous groups, or nominally under state control. Forests with high biodiversity are, by their very nature, likely to draw the attention of the global timber trade and are easily exploited.
The timber industry is also responsible for a major reduction in the quality of many forests. From the perspective of biodiversity, there is often little to choose between replacing a natural forest with a tree plantation or losing it altogether. In either case, the vast majority of the original native wildlife species do not survive. Even if the total number of species remains constant, the rarer natural species are often replaced by exotics and weed species.
Loss of forest quality has already occurred over most of Europe, North America and Australasia. It is becoming significant in several Southern countries as well. Analysis of the timber trade's impact should consider more than just the loss of area under trees. It should also consider the biological quality of the forest that remains. "Analysis should consider more than just the loss of area under trees. It should also consider the biological quality of the forest that remains."
The timber trade and forests rich in wildlife
Following centuries of degradation, most forest ecosystems are severely
threatened. Surviving areas of natural or semi-natural habitat are of primary
importance in maintaining biodiversity. The Earth currently contains large
areas of recently cleared forest, young regenerating forest and middle-aged
forest. Far less common, particularly in the North but increasingly in the
South, are old-growth forests. These generally have a specialised flora
and fauna that can survive only in forests that have been relatively undisturbed
for hundreds of years. In many of these areas, the timber trade remains,
or has become, the primary agent of change.
Including all forests in Assessments Previous emphasis on problems in tropical rainforests has obscured issues in other forests. When the WWF study looked at all forests, the role of the timber trade immediately grew in significance. Unlike tropical rainforests, where there have been endless arguments about cause and effect in forest loss, in almost all temperate and boreal countries still possessing substantial old-growth forests, the timber trade is now undoubtedly the primary cause of natural forest loss.
Illegal logging operations
Asssessments from the industry tend to draw on official studies of the legal timber trade. In fact, in some countries undergoing severe deforestation, the timber recorded by the Ministry of Forests is only a small proportion of the actual fellings and/or exports. Much illegal timber enters the international trade, with or without the knowledge of importers. Often, illegality is tacitly accepted by the buyer.
Countries where illegal logging is having an important and largely unquantified
impact on natural forests include (not an exhaustive list): Kenya, Zaire,
Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Bolivia,
Ecuador and the Russian Federation. Until recently, 50% of the mahogany
leaving Brazil was exported illegally.
Changing global forest conditions
Time has also increased the relative impact of the timber trade. Natural
forest has now been reduced to fragments in many countries. As the amount
of high quality, natural forest declines and is increasingly confined to
areas which are inhospitable to human settlement, the proportion of this
remnant that is damaged by the timber trade continues to grow. The actions
of the national and international timber trade are now critical to the survival
of most of the world's biologically richest forest ecosystems and therefore
to the majority of species.
The way forward
The next two or three decades will decide whether or not we enter the future with a full range of rich and diverse forest ecosystems. The future actions of the timber trade will play a vital role in this implicit decision.
Although the situation is serious, the report claimed there are some optimistic signs. A substantial and growing section of the timber trade is prepared to take environmental issues seriously and is making real efforts to change its practices. According to the report, developments such as the establishment of the Forest Stewardship Council and efforts to promote certification in countries such as Belgium, Sweden and the UK provide a framework for changes in forest management that will have important benefits for wildlife.
On the other hand, some sections of the timber trade are responding to the perceived "threat" of environmentalism by resisting change and fighting back, pressuring governments and aid agencies, funding front groups to discredit the environmental lobby, cutting fast to beat planned controls, moving into areas where environmental controls are lax, and delaying reforms. These timber traders will come under increasing pressure in the future.
WWF supports the use of wood from well-managed, environmentally and socially sustainable forests. The needs of the timber trade and the environmental movement are not as far apart as people often assume. Clearcutting an area and moving on might benefit a handful of people at the top of a timber company, but it certainly does not benefit the workers on the ground any more than it does wildlife, the environment and local people. Recent abandonment of worked out concessions in countries as far apart as Cote d'Ivoire, the USA and Indonesia all bear witness to the human costs of bad forestry.
WWF has responded to the problems posed by forest degradation by setting the world two important and challenging targets:
1. Establishing an ecologically representative network of protected areas covering at least 10 per cent of the world's forests by the year 2000, demonstating a range of socially and environmentally appropriate models.
2. Ensuring the independent certification, under the auspices of the Forest Stewardship Council, of 10 million hectares of sustainably managed forest by 1998.
The Bad Harvest? report, released by WWF United Kingdom in London, is part of a world-wide forest conservation effort.
Commenting on the release of the report, WWF Australia Chief Executive Officer, David Butcher, said that "this report has immediate relevance to the forest controversy raging in Australia and demonstrates the international importance of achieving an ecologically sustainable forest management system in Australia. There are two prerequisites essential to restore confidence in Australia's forest management - a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system, and a credible, independently certified forest management system." Mr Butcher concluded.
The actions of the national and international timber trade are now critical to the survival of most of the world's biologically rich forest ecosystems and therefore to the majority of species.