Logging of rainforest in its natural state is an emotive issue. The success of the green lobby over the past decades has us all anguished by the thought of virgin tracts of land being hacked down and hauled away.
But the truth is that conservation at the sharp end is very complex indeed, often needing to balance social, political and economic factors with purely ecological ones. Demand for wood is such that watertight conservation is maddeningly difficult – so difficult in fact that the more realistic sort of environmentalists today in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia, are accepting something short of that goal.
What they are saying is that we should accept that there are currently not good enough incentives in place to help us save 100% of the virgin forest left and we should try instead for the next best thing. That still means some absolute protection, for the most pristine places, but it also means controlled logging elsewhere to obtain the best possible prices for the timber that is extracted. The money that furnishes would then provide an income for local people and companies, social programmes to help those living in and off the forests find ways to reduce their dependence, and funds to support an effective management system to conserve the forest that is left.
Erik Meijaard is a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. In a February 22, 2007 article in The Jakarta Post he said that, “recent work shows that well-managed forestry concessions can actually benefit wildlife conservation tremendously”.
He’s not talking about saving every last species. His vision is of managed areas that help conserve as much as possible while still providing livelihoods and revenue. The key of course is the quality of that management and even today that is patchy at best.
In Indonesia for example, rules governing forestry have changed often, sometimes in response to swirling political currents which have left the picture muddied and implementation next to impossible. A ban on all log exports to protect the domestic wood processing industries became headline news in 2004, but it did little if anything to prevent the processing of illegally felled timber within the country.
Often, where locally managed and selective logging is attempted, the precedent – and more importantly, the physical presence of a logging road – just opens up the forest to further illegal exploitation. As less and less economic advantage is extracted by successive arrivals on the scene, the temptation to burn the remainder to make way for farmland increases. Often this farmland proves unsustainable itself but by then those left living on the land are the most desperate. Even just eking out a few seasons-worth of crops before moving on to the next patch of burnt forest is worthwhile.
What is needed is a way to support local management regimes and hence the advent in the 1990s of forest certification bodies. Today there are scores of bodies overseeing certification schemes, both at a national and international level. Here in Asia though, many national schemes are tainted by allegations of inappropriate government or industry influence or even outright corruption.
Indonesia’s certification picture is piecemeal and confusing, while next door the Malaysia Timber Certification Council (MTCC) is strengthening its procedures but has yet to be widely accepted as totally independent or of applying sustainable management principles. At least they and the Indonesians are working on it. Other Asian timber suppliers such as Laos, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea still lack national standards.
Only a few schemes are global in their reach and of those the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC has the widest acceptance among environmentalists, social welfare groups and the forestry industry as it addresses the interests of all three. As of April 2008, more than 100 million ha of forest had been certified by FSC, spread over 79 countries.
The certification process starts with the setting of environmental, social and economic goals for a given forest concession. The concession’s management are assessed by a company accredited by the standard-setting certification body. In FSC’s case, for example, they have accredited 17 auditing companies worldwide for this task. If a forest is duly certified, the management is audited yearly to see standards are keep up. If it fails to be certified, guidance is given to help them reach the standards next time round.
As a consequence of all this, getting certified is a laborious process that takes years, but companies know that it can be worth it for the relatively new and quickly growing market in certified timber is a lucrative one.
“Companies on the front end of the certification wave can expect to receive a significant premium price on their certified timber”, wrote Meijaard in that The Jakarta Post article. “In Malaysia, certified logs are sold at forest edge auctions to international buyers at US$275 per cubic metre, or almost three times the normal market price.”
With such a wide disparity in prices, it is tempting for companies to take illegally felled or uncertified timber and pass it off as certified. To not do so takes diligence – and a considerable effort of will on the part of locals on the ground who can be exposed to all kinds of intimidation.
On September 29, 2002, two guards employed by Asia Pacific Resources International (April), an Indonesian paper company that is working towards full FSC certification, stopped trucks carrying undocumented logs from crossing a river on the company’s ferry. Angered, the drivers stirred up a mob which beat the guards to death and dumped their bodies in the river.
Similar stories abound but April and other companies insist they are staying the course and moving down the road towards certification. One possible way-point on that journey is to have your products labelled as ‘FSC-controlled wood’, a less rigorous designation that at least ensures the wood’s origin and path to market is documented and that it is not sourced from a plantation.
Jouko Virta, who heads the global fibre-supply division for April, is quick to talk up the importance of going all the way to becoming fully certified. A Forbes.com article of October 29, 2007 quotes him as saying: “In the next couple of years it will become difficult not to have certified products, it seems to be becoming a basic requirement.”
That requirement is based on pressure from both consumers and governments in the key export markets of Europe and North America. In places, government rules demand the use of certified timber; elsewhere the man and woman in the street, galvanised by environmental groups, have pushed end-users such as large home-furnishing chains into addressing the issue.
IKEA’s spokeswoman for China, also quoted in that Forbes article, said that “IKEA is working toward securing 30% of its wood” [from FSC-certified sources], but pointed out that supplies of such timber are still limited.
More forest needs to be certified around the world and Meijaard argues that the government-protected areas in Indonesia for one, will not be sufficient to provide the necessary forestry and ecosystem services.
The answer, he believes, is to encourage community and private sector involvement in the management of protected forests. Given the necessary incentives – both social and economic – these approaches offer the hope that we can provide both for ourselves and for the many other inhabitants of the planet who need us to provide for them.
Those forests will not all be the pristine places of die-hard environmentalists’ dreams, but they should be enough to save most of an ecosystem that may otherwise be logged into total oblivion.
The author wishes to thank The Nature Conservancy for their help in the production of this article.