The RIC Good Wood Guide

Tribal People, Tropical Timber

Some Tough Questions - Some Hard Answers

by Roger Graf - Bruno Manser Foundation, Switzerland

What does logging mean for indigenous people and the plants and animals of the rainforest?

Throughout the world, several hundred thousand indigenous forest dwellers - including Indians, Pygmies, Dayaks, and Papuans - have been deprived of their livelihood by logging. These people are suffering from hunger, have become the victims of violence from newcomers such as lumberjacks, displaced people and new settlers, and are dying due to the importation of civilization's diseases to which they are not immune. In cases where logging has led to major clearcutting, such as in Southeast Asia and West Africa, it has resulted in the eradication of thousands of species of animals and plants. Erosion, and the accompanying destruction of the thin and relatively infertile layer of humus and the total change in the microclimate are among subsequent problems.

How can people live in the rainforest if they cannot sell wood?

For the traditional forest inhabitants, the forest provides all that they need. Indigenous forest dwellers, rubber tappers and many other groups of local people obtain many secondary products from the forest. Examples include fruit, roots, palm-hearts, sago, nuts, wild honey, meat and fish, resins, gums, rubber and medicines. In contrast to tropical wood, these products are usually traded locally and do not appear in export statistics. It leads to an inaccurate picture of the local economy. Various scientific studies have shown that the sustainable use of secondary products is economically more viable than the one-sided exploitation of trees for export as timber. Wood is therefore not the most important raw material from the rainforest!

Are poor countries not dependent on the export of tropical wood for income?

Although countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea have sacrificed their forests for the export of wood, they are still poor. Today, many of these countries have to import timber to cover their own needs. The main evils leading to chronic poverty in many tropical countries are due to unfair trade, unjust prices and the unsolvable problems of corruption. Dealing in tropical timber is a dirty business. Penetration into conservation areas, disregard for indigenous land rights, tax evasion, false declarations, illegal trade in protected species, bribery and smuggling occur regularly. A wealthy upper-class, many politicians and often foreign timber companies, are earning a great deal of money. The broad base of the population however, remains empty-handed and often suffering from the negative consequences.

But logging's share accounts for only 10 percent of the worldwide destruction of rainforest.

This figure from the FAO is misleading because two inaccurate bases of calculation were used. One the one hand, a comparison was made between the surface of all tropical forests and the rate of destruction from logging of tropical rainforests - which constitute only a fraction of the tropical forests in statistics. To have accurate figures, the surface of the evergreen rainforests alone should be compared with logging quotas. On the other hand, the various definitions of a "devastated forest" are widely disparate. The FAO, in its calculations, seems to have been quite generous. The fact is, that in today's traditional wood-exporting countries such as Malaysia (including Sarawak), Burma, Papua New Guinea, Cameroun, Guyana and Suriname, the wood industry bears the main responsibility for the destruction of forests.

Can problems be solved by sustainable use and management?

Criteria for the sustainable use of wood from tropical rainforests are highly controversial. Each instance of industrial logging in untouched rainforests, albeit done "sustainably", still has negative consequences for nature. There are a few examples of logging done by groups of local people, which is more or less sustainable (in Brazil and PNG, for instance). In contrast to commercial timber companies, these local people have an interest in maintaining their forests. According to a report published in 1990 by ITTO, less than 1 percent of the tropical wood sold throughout the world comes from forests which are truly sustainably used and managed.

Can large plantations solve the problem?

Plantations are monocultures and have nothing in common with the diversity of the rainforest. In addition, plantations are susceptible to insects and must be regularly sprayed with pesticides. Exotic trees such as eucalyptus, teak or Caribbean spruce are often planted. These grow rapidly and can be "harvested" by clearcutting after just a few years. Plantation wood is mainly used in the production of cellulose (eucalyptus, Caribbean spruce) and for flooring and garden furniture (teak). In many cases, new markets are created for plantation wood where previously there were none. With a considerable advertising effort, an attempt was made to create a new market in Europe for plantion teak (for garden furniture and flooring). This only encourages additional use of tropical wood and does not save a single tree in a natural forest.

"Any discussion about the tropical forests should begin by looking at . . . the remaining tribal people for whom the tropical forest has been home for many generations. Their story . . . is one of which we must all be profoundly ashamed."

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