Street furniture, footbridges, marine pilings, balconies, and boardwalks — tropical timber has many uses in cities today. Tropical wood is durable, resistant to bacteria and mold, carbon storing, and renewable. A sustainable built environment is one built with wood, if that wood comes from a sustainable source that respects all the values of a forest ecosystem. In all cases, but especially in the case of tropical wood, it is crucial to source conservation timber.
Conservation timber is wood that supports long-term forest conservation. It generates financial benefit for well-governed sustainable forestry and local stakeholders who act as forest stewards. Conservation timber results in more and better forests compared to business as usual.
Tropical timber as a global commodity
Tropical timber comprises thousands of species that are prized around the world for their lightness, hardness, durability, and beauty. In addition to lumber, cities import vast amounts of value-added tropical wood products like doors, windows, veneers, mouldings, and joinery every year. Millions of people are involved in the work of supplying these timber products to a global market, including many in informal and subsistence roles that cannot be properly counted. As a percentage of global exports of wood products, tropical wood products constitute roughly ten percent.
Tropical timber: A driver of deforestation?
A common misconception, driven partly by the media, is that all tropical timber production is bad for forests. Illegal and over-extractive logging are serious threats to forests, but the major drivers of deforestation, according to many scientific studies, stem from global demand for agricultural products. Varying by region, primary forests are being cleared, causing massive carbon emissions, for the large-scale production of soybeans and palm oil, to raise beef cattle, and to grow plantation forests. Additional drivers include urbanization and climate change, with warmer temperatures creating conditions for more and worse forest fires. Illegal practices abet these processes. Where inroads are made by logging, chances increase the forest will be cleared and converted to another use.
Drone footage shows clearcutting of the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia to make way for soy plantations.
The forest-positive opportunity
A sustainably managed forest can supply conservation timber and non-timber products such as nuts, fruits, and medicines nearly indefinitely, providing livelihoods for whole communities. Research shows that low-intensity forest use over long terms can even increase forest biodiversity and carbon sequestration. It takes knowledge, planning, and secure forest rights, as has been demonstrated by communities around the world, including those inhabiting Partner Forest landscapes.
For instance, in the Petén department of Guatemala, where the Partner Forest Program has worked with the community timber enterprises of Uaxactún and Carmelita, forestry concessions have proven more effective than parks at conservation of the UNESCO Maya Biosphere Reserve. They have garnered international recognition as an exemplary case of conservation through forestry enterprise. Yet this story is not unique. Around the world are communities who depend on healthy forests for their livelihood and are deeply committed to stewardship.
To conserve forests, cities must support these efforts. Community forest enterprises face inter-related changes of securing stable markets, income, and land tenure. Buying certified wood, such as FSC or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), can help. However, some communities facing barriers to certification by virtue of their size, remoteness, or capacity, will be left behind. A partnership with a Partner Forest guarantees procurement of conservation timber and supports a future of thriving forests and people.
Members of the Carmelita forestry enterprise document tree stands for planned harvests in Petén, Guatemala. Photo by Sergio Izquierdo.
This complex issue highlights how important it is to support sustainably managed forests and to be attentive to wood sources. More forests are being certified sustainable by organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) each year, with social, economic, and ecological benefits for all stakeholders. By one estimate, if Europe and the UK were to source 100% sustainable tropical wood from certified forests, it would positively impact 18 million hectares of forest and reduce Europe’s carbon footprint by 100 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of annually taking 21.5 million gas-powered cars off the road. Well-managed forests grow more wood than is harvested.
The Science Committee of the Iwokrama International Centre in Iwokrama forest, Guyana, studies low-impact forestry in this intact tropical landscape.
Learn more about tropical timber
Find out how conservation communities might work in the tropics with this Mongabay article
Read this e-book titled Green Carbon, Black Trade to gain clarity on the nebulous global timber market.
Learn about timber legality and its role in tackling deforestation by reading this WRI article