The RIC Good Wood Guide

Reducing Demand for Timber - Sustainable Forestry and Ecolabelling are Not Enough

- by Rubens Harry Born

From farmhouse to high-rise building, how people use trees and forest products differs dramatically from North to South. The fact is, per capita consumption is not equitably distributed among all countries of the world. It varies depending on a host of factors that range from the level and type of economic activity, to population, cultural and climatic context and per capita income.

In developed countries, industrial wood - particularly paper - is the largest category of wood use, while fuelwood is the leading category in developing countries. Globally, about half the world's wood consumption is industrial and the other half fuelwood. (Note that although the amount of wood used for fuel is significant, the gathering of fuelwood rarely threatens closed canopy forests - although it does tax woodland ecosystems. In contrast, industrial logging largely degrades closed forests.)

Forests are the home, livelihood and cultural basis for close to 500 million indigenous people. In developing countries, forests provide a host of services to their inhabitants, including water, medicinal plants, fuel, food, and fruits. In 1991, the FAO reported that the global economic "contribution" of wood products was $US400 billion. This estimate, however, does not take into account the "true cost" of logging: the damage to the forest's ability to provide essential services to its inhabitants. The "trade-offs" made for timber extraction include irreversible forest damage, poverty, soil erosion, decreased soil fertility and pollution. The forest protection and human rights movements of developing countries call for a new system of accounting that considers the environmental and social costs of natural resource-extraction.

To halt, as well as to reverse the forest losses and the consequent environmental, social and cultural losses, a broad range of measures have been put forth. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, produced an ambitious action plan called Agenda 21, which contains in its 40 chapters specific and generic ideas and proposals to reverse the destruction of the Planet's capacity to sustain life. The Conference has also produced a Non-legally binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests. Those documents were signed by more than 160 countries of the world.

The policies outlined in the Statement of Forests and in Agenda 21, Chapter 11 entitled "Combatting Deforestation", include:

  • to manage, conserve and increase green areas by protecting forests in representative ecological systems, landscapes and primary forests;
  • to improve evaluation and observation mechanisms that help us to detect changes in forest cover, the total area of forest land and levels of exploitation;
  • to formulate methods that would take into account the social, economic and environmental values of forests - analyzing the supply and demand of goods and services in an integrated manner, and not only considering timber resources;

    It is very common to hear of Northern people, both from governmental and private organisations, stressing that implementing sustainable forest management is the key task in halting forest loss. However, this management approach fails to address some important causes of deforestation. Among them are the overconsumption of wood and other resources in certain countries, the unequal access to products and benefits from forest and tree products, land tenure inequities, and poverty. Discussions of sustainable management of primary forest in general presume that it is possible to continue logging those forests without serious environmental and social impacts.

    It has yet to be proven that timber production in primary forests - especially in the tropical rainforests - is an adequte way of protecting these ecosystems. This approach also assumes - rather naively - that the operations of giant logging companies can be monitored in the remote areas.

    Sustainable forestry may provide instruments, criteria, indicators, and new operational technologies and procedures within the forests' limits. However, unless we lower the demand for tree products, no protection can be secured for the forest ecosystems, particularly those in developing countries.

    There is also a lot of emphasis being placed by the forest protection movement on certification schemes, popularly known as ecolabelling. By this approach, products would get a green label if their production is considered environmentally sound. Specific criteria and indicators for certification need to be based on principles of sustainable forestry.

    Though ecolabelling will make it easy for consumers to make better choices in their purchase of wood products, it will have limited effects on reducing overall demand.


    Demand reduction is the key. Due to the unequal distribution of wealth, the rate of consumption in industrial countries determines the rate of the demand and natural resource depletion globally. This is because 20 percent of the most affluent people of the world (mainly concentrated in the northern countries) can afford to directly or indirectly consume 80 percent of the world's natural resources. Therefore, it is urgent to focus on changing attitudes in northern countries.

    As a Southern American citizen, I am shocked during my visits to the US when I see large amounts of waste being generated. From eating at fast-food restaurants to buying a shirt or home appliance, one is showered in wasteful packaging. Recycling helps a little, but it just does not match the scale of the problem.

    Future discussions or efforts to protect forests, whether regional or international, must focus on changing the patterns of wood consumption in the global economy. All sectors of society - government, business, trade unions, neighbourhood associations and NGO's - should get involved in the process of increasing public awareness.

    Progress towards a sustainable society hinges on several factors, including an economic transition plan, the democratisation of decision-making, equitable division of labour, and fair distribution of wealth. Furthermore, it depends upon our ability to quickly implement efficient technologies and sustainable management policies. On a more personal level, our lifestyles must respect the supporting capacity of ecosystems in order to maintain a healthy and balanced environment. The effort to change behaviour must start immediately since it will take some time before their impacts are felt.

    Each citizen could be a campaigner in this global effort by sharing his/her concern and information on sustainable lifestyles to his/her circle of friends, office or schoolmates, etc. This involvement will be key in creating the political will to move government and industry towards sustainability.

    - The above article appears in the book Cut Waste, Not Trees, where it is titled 'The Hungry North: A Brazilian Perspective'. (See Books, Ethical Timber, in the Alternative Directory).

    Rubens Harry Born - is a civil and environmental engineer and the executive coordinator of the non-profit group, Vitae Civilis Institute for Development, Environment and Peace.

    "Everything we humans have been doing to the forest is an attempt to push Nature to a higher sustainable yield. We fail to recognise, however, that we must have a sustainable forest before we can have a sustainable yield...

    We must have a sustainable yield to have a sustainable industry; we must have a sustainable industry to have a sustainable economy; we must have a sustainable economy to have a sustainable society."

    - Chris Maser

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