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Today, rainforest wood prevails in almost all the wood products we owe—from floors, chairs, plunger handles, to even pencils. It’s everywhere. Well, not at the rate we’re going with tropical timber extraction. Once upon a time it used to be that 12% of Earth’s total land surface, roughly 16 million square kilometers, consisted of tropical rainforest (Gisella 2014). Now 50% of that expanse has been deforested in the past century. Logged tropical forests are now more widespread than intact old growth tropical forests with the notable exception of the Amazon (Edwards et al. 2014). The Amazon combined with Latin America holds 50% of the tropical forests worldwide, suggesting its principal role in housing most of the world’s biodiversity and maintaining the global ecosystem. However, 20% of the Amazon has already been deforested, indicating that we lost just as much biodiversity and probably more so because the deforestation rate today is 0.6% percent per year. That may not seem much, but considering that we lose 23 hectares of old growth tropical forest per minute—that is,12.8 million hectares per year–and that not only are animal and plant species are disappearing, but also that our ecosystem is disrupted, something terribly, terribly wrong is going to happen. And it’s going to be big.

For this reason, governments, businesses and NGOs have been trying to mitigate the effects of deforestation, namely through sustainable forestry, the two most famous methods being RIL (i.e. reduced impact logging) and carbon offsets.

And does it work?

It’s a bit complicated.

In order to determine if RIL or carbon offsets can reduce timber extraction and promote forest regeneration instead, thereby curtailing the loss of biodiversity and the ecosystem services that come with it in forests such as the Amazon, we have to look at the three drivers of deforestation: Agricultural expansion (AGRO), wood extraction (WOOD) and infrastructural expansion (INFRA).

These three drivers not being mutually exclusive indeed incentivize one another. To illustrate, road extension, an example of infrastructural expansion, creates access for logging operations, which in turn after having extracted all the wood in the now accessible area, will incentivize road extension. Growing populations and globalization also accelerate agricultural expansion, which in turn accelerates infrastructural expansion and wood extraction to meet growing demands for the transport of monocrops, ultimately resulting in exponential rates of deforestation. An instance of this is how in 2000, only 4.7 million hectares of originally Costa Rica’s 5 million ha  rainforest (CR is 5.2 million ha in size by the way) has been deforested and converted into extracted wood where scarily enough 42% of it is manufactured into flimsy pallets. They don’t even get reused it’s cheaper to cut down more rainforest than to recycle them!

Costa Rica is not unique in this case as globally, timber extraction followed by clearance has resulted in the loss of over 50 million ha of natural forests between 1990 and 2010 (Gisella 2014). However, as seen in 2014, Costa Rica has increased roughly 25% of the area of its mature and secondary forests through sustainable forestry programs such as RIL and carbon offsets.

Yet even if countries implement such programs, the demand for rainforest wood will still drive deforestation at an unsustainable rate. It’s widely known that the benefits of conserving rainforests, with its reservoir of ecosystem services, such as carbon sinking, and rich biodiversity, which points to an array of potential medicinal benefits, far outweigh the costs. Yet why do countries such as the US, who today is the largest importer of tropical hardwoods (not surprising, considering that 89,000 acres of rainforest wood were logged to build NYC’s coastal boardwalks), continue to endorse that kind of demand? In other words, what are RIL and carbon offset really going up against?

Well, the driving forces mentioned earlier—AGRO, WOOD and INFRA—are founded upon powerful economic incentives, poor policy-making, desperate and uninformed agricultural practices, years of colonialism before and cultural indifference today, the combination of which drives the demand for rainforest wood we see today as well as failings of sustainable forestry programs such as RIL and carbon offsets.

Furthermore, even if the government designates areas for legal logging and attempts to set constraints on logging, such as setting minimum size limits on trees (60cm DBH), defining maximum extractable biomass per hectare (10 trees per hectare) and determining cutting cycles (about 20-40 years per cycle), only a few tree species are marketable and so target amounts of any one timber species requires enormous tracts of tropical forest for harvest. Consequently, though clear cutting tropical old growth forests is illegal, it is unsurprisingly rampant everywhere.

RIL or reduced impact logging attempts to make logging sustainable by setting the guidelines that will not only protect the regeneration of seedlings and saplings, but also minimize soil damage, limit negative impacts to wildlife, protect water quality and preserve ecological processes. However, the requirements and implementation of RIL are often convoluted and poorly managed. Since engineers and topographers are needed to monitor and inventory the forested area, RIL becomes costly and unfortunately unfeasible for the average logging operation. Cultural indifference also plays a part in the failings of RIL as many buyers are unlikely to pay more for certified wood, in which RIL is a requirement. Only 7% of global wood products are certified because their cost makes them non-competitive in the face of an abundance of cheap and illegally logged tropical wood.

Yet even if 100% of global wood products are certified, extraction is extraction and if one extraction of a species can have untold consequences on the biodiversity of a small area, think of how that extraction can affect great expanses of forest such as the Amazon. A whole lot. Furthermore, though RIL attempts to make logging sustainable, and yes there’s no doubt that RIL is indeed more sustainable than conventional logging (12% of marketable wood saved), RIL itself is just not sustainable. By chronically removing large, slow-growing woods, the forest composition inevitably changes, impacting existing wildlife and increasing soil erosion. Additionally, the extraction of specific timber species may decrease genetic variability and eventually lead to their extinction as well as other species affected by it, thereby decreasing biodiversity overall.

And even if RIL is sustainable, the infrastructure, such as road extension, that made RIL possible is even more destructive to the forest. Logging roads to extract timber fragments the forest, which impedes forest regeneration and long-term productivity. It also permits easy access to remote forests by bushmeat hunters and even inhibits movement of forest-interior specialists, such as the ant-following scale-backed antbird (Willisornis poecilinotus) of the Amazon (Wallace 2007). Simply put, road extension is just another form deforestation more unregulated than logging itself. Intact Amazon forest produces half of its rainfall through the moisture it releases into the air, but the level of precipitation has decreased due to logging roads ( Wallace 2007). If enough trees are cleared, rainfall will decrease and the remaining trees will dry and die, unraveling the entire forest’s ecology.

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So rather than simply slow down the process, the Koyote Protocol in 1997 decided to launch a carbon offset program, which entails industrial countries and NGOs to buy “carbon credits,” i.e. send money to tropical countries, in exchange for conservation and tree planting. The logic follows that since tropical forests act as carbon sinks, preventing them from being burned, from essentially becoming carbon sources, will offset carbon emissions.

However, environmental service programs are not well-regulated and may even make matters worse, especially since countries and NGOs that buy carbon credits are often not local and may not have sufficient ecological knowledge of the area they are conserving. To illustrate, the Dutch FACE foundation planted 220 sq km of exotic Eucalyptus and pine in Costa Rica. Though these tree species are certified by FSC, the Forestry Stewardship Council, the only existing global certifying agency and the most important leverage on the conservation of tropical forests, they are invasive and negatively affect the Costa Rica’s ecosytem. In the process of planting these invasive species, native paramo were outrageously destroyed, which released tons of soil carbon—a cost that far outweighs the benefits of FACE’s conservation efforts.

Furthermore, monetary incentives are not long-term solutions and in fact cause conservation efforts to be dependent on them. For example, the Monteverde Conservation League, which owns the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the largest reserve in the Monteverde area, focuses on buying forested areas for conservation. Recently however, the government has lower environment service payments, forcing the organization to cut back on purchasing land for conservation. If the government continues to do this, the organization itself may even have to shut down, making all previous conservation efforts null.

RIL and carbon sinks are considered to fall under the category of sustainable tropical forestry. However, the word “sustainable” guarantees that future generations will have access to what we have. So “sustainable extraction” in it of itself is oxymoronic since extracting old growth forest will take hundreds of years to replace perhaps before any of our future generations will be able to see it

Perhaps the solution is not only the combination of RIL, carbon offsets, banning unsustainable wood and lobbying, but also educating the public that yes, deforestation is bad, but extracting certain trees is even worse. The extraction of tropical trees have far-reaching consequences for not only food-web structures and ecosystem functions, but also for the survival of species, who having been accustomed to the stability the tropics, unlike their temperate counterparts, are highly sensitive to any a anthropogenic disturbance. Think of the old Minesweeper computer game and compare it to our currently logged forest. Pick the wrong one, and like a detonated bomb in a minefield, this may catalyze the destruction of hundreds, most likely thousands of species dependent on and interwoven in their existence.

So choose carefully.

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Citations

Edwards, P., Joseph A. Tobias, Douglas Sheil, Erik Meijaard and William F. Laurance.
September 2014. “Maintaining Ecosystem Function and Services in Logged
Tropical Forests.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 29, No. 9., P. 511-520.

Fernández, Gisella. October 2014. Humans in the Tropics Lecture: “Sustainable
Forestry.” Monteverde, Costa Rica: CIEE.

Wallace, Scott. January 2007. “The Last of the Amazon.” National Geographic.