Street furniture, footbridges, marine pilings, balconies, and boardwalks–tropical timber has many uses in cities today. And when sustainably harvested and used for the right purpose, it can be the most sustainable material for a project. Tropical wood is durable, resistant to bacteria and mold, carbon storing, and renewable. A climate-friendly world is one built with wood.
Yet claims by environmental NGOs that there is no such thing as sustainable tropical timber have left a deep impression, and concern is well founded. From the 1950s onward, the timber industry degraded vast tracts of tropical forest, and forest loss associated with logging is still a huge problem. But the dynamics of the issue only highlight how important it is to support communities that actually conserve forests through sustainable practices.
Tropical timber as a global commodity
Tropical timber employs millions of people, many within informal and subsistence activities that cannot be counted. Production is in the hundreds of millions of cubic metres of roundwood (logs), sawnwood, veneer, and more. In 2019, tropical timber logs alone amounted to 294 million m3, with more than 70% produced in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Brazil, and Thailand.
Tropical timber's forest footprint
The globalized timber trade leaves forests vulnerable to overexploitation and degradation. Poor governance, management, and transparency in supply chains contribute to the problem. For example, short-term forest concessions motivate the concession-holder to extract timber profits quickly, rather than harvest at low rates over long cycles that allow the forest to stay intact. And once an area with insecure tenure has been logged, it is more likely to be cleared for settlement and agriculture, because logging roads made it easier to access the land.
Drone footage showing clearcutting of the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia for soy plantations
Outright illegal logging also threatens primary forests. Research estimates that illegal logging accounts for between 50 and 90 percent tropical timber in key producer countries, contributing to the loss of forests that are the world’s critical carbon sinks and centres of biodiversity. Bans on illegally traded timber like the US Lacey Act (2008), the EU Timber Regulation, and the Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition (2012) cannot correct these problems, nor have they ended illegal trade, which is valued at up to $152 billion USD per year.
The forest-positive opportunity
A sustainably managed forest can supply timber and other non-timber products such as nuts, fruits, and medicines nearly indefinitely, providing livelihoods for whole communities, while creating an economic case for keeping the forest standing. Research shows that low-intensity timber harvest over long terms can even increase forest biodiversity and carbon sequestration. It takes knowledge, planning, and secure rights of access and use, as has been demonstrated by communities around the world, including our Partner Forests.
Additionally, there’s a big role for small farmers to play in meeting global demand for tropical timber. Small tree plantations can be grown on marginal farmland, leaving growers space and time for raising crops or engaging in other kinds of work. For example, in Java, Indonesia, many households grow teak in long rotations as part of agroforestry. In Thailand, rice farmers grow belts of eucalyptus. Such plantation forests can be important corridors for wildlife connecting one forest to another.
The upshot is that to conserve forests, we must support the people invested in producing tropical timber that helps keep forests alive—conservation timber. Securing stable markets, income, and land tenure are inter-related challenges. Buying certified wood, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, est. 1993) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC, est. 1999), can help, but it’s not a panacea. Some communities, facing barriers to certification, by virtue of their size, remoteness or capacity, will be left behind, with no choice but to convert forests to other, more lucrative land uses. A relationship with a Partner Forest signals a much stronger investment in thriving forests, and thriving people.
Carmelita Cooperative members documenting tree stands for planned harvests in Peten, Guatemala. Photo by Sergio Izquierdo
The Science Committee of Iwokrama, Guyana, plays an important role in balancing low-impact forestry and scientific studies in this pristine 'natural laboratory'.
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