Feature Article

Tropical Timber: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The destruction of tropical forests is one of the best-known environmental crises facing us today. Tropical rainforests have been described as the “lungs of the earth,” and they contain the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. Yet in spite of all the attention they have received, by most accounts the problem is not moving closer to a solution. Not only are forests still being destroyed with alarming speed, but the rate of destruction has actually increased over the past decade. Contrary to popular perception, however, hardwoods sold to industrialized countries are not always the leading cause of deforestation. In fact, purchasing some tropical hardwoods—from the right source—may be a critical part of the solution.

The term “tropical rain forest” is loosely used to describe forested areas between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn (about 23° north and south of the equator) that receive more than about 40 inches of precipitation annually. These regions cover about 6% to 7% of the earth’s land, yet they are home to more than half of the planet’s plant and animal species, many of which have not yet been catalogued. Primary forests—those not previously cleared—are the most diverse and ecologically rich.

What’s Wrong with Deforestation?

Deforestation is causing habitat loss and the extinction of thousands of species each year. The actual magnitude of the loss will never be known, because according to current estimates only about 5% of the world’s plant and animal species have been formally identified. In purely economic terms, the potential commercial value of many of these lost species, extrapolated from the value of species presently harvested, is immense. The $100 billion pharmaceutical industry, for example, depends heavily on tropical plants. Aside from the value of each animal or plant, diversity itself is increasingly being valued for the resilience and adaptability that it lends to an ecosystem.

Deforestation is also increasingly suspected of causing both regional and global climatic changes. Regionally, rainfall is reduced when forests are cut because a significant proportion of the rainfall comes from local evapotranspiration. This drop in rainfall is blamed for the ongoing desertification of once-forested areas.

Globally, the rainforests contain large amounts of carbon, which is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) when the vegetation is burned. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and is considered the largest contributor to global warming pressures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tropical deforestation annually results in four to seven billion metric tonnes (4 to 8 billion short tons) of CO2 emissions, or 15 to 14 of the net annual release of carbon worldwide.

As with forests in many regions, trees play an important role in stabilizing the soils. Widespread erosion and the resultant siltation of rivers, lakes and coastal areas are often caused by deforestation. Even limited tree removal can cause erosion on steep hillsides or where roads are poorly designed.

The loss of livelihood and culture among indigenous people of the rain forests is another tragedy of deforestation. People who have survived for millennia as hunter-gatherers in the rich rainforest environment suddenly find that habitat destruction has eliminated their large game, siltation of waterways has killed their fish, and many of the materials they once utilized for clothing, shelter, and tools are gone or in short supply. Denied their traditional environment and sustenance, these people—if they survive at all—join the ranks of disenfranchised poor in the deforested region.

Deforestation also eliminates one of the main resources that spurred it on, namely the trees. In many countries that once had extensive rainforests, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Sri Lanka, there are simply no exploitable forests left. In others, including some of today’s most prolific producers, the supply will be exhausted by the end of the century. Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), for example, was in 1973 the world’s fifth largest timber exporter, gaining a full 33% of its export income from the trade, but by 1990 its forest industry was described as “on the verge of ruin” due to limited resources. According to World Bank estimates, of the 33 countries with net exports of tropical timber in 1987, only 10 will have timber left to export in the year 2000.

Except where erosion is extreme, the warm, moist rainforest climate often generates quick regrowth on land that has been partially or totally cleared. These secondary forests generally contain only a fraction of the animal and plant species that populated the original primary forest, however.

Causes of Deforestation

Tropical woods exported to industrialized countries are a factor in the destruction of tropical rain forests, but they are by no means the only destructive force. The vast majority of logs cut in rain forests are used domestically for lumber or as fuel. Recently, in fact, large areas of pristine forest in Para Province in Brazil have begun to be cleared, first to mine iron ore beneath the forest, and then to fuel the iron smelters making steel. Conditions vary widely among the forested tropical regions: in parts of Indonesia, exports represent a larger proportion of the timber harvest than in most of Latin America. Worldwide, researchers estimate that only about 4% of the timber cut from tropical rainforests is sold internationally.

Causes of tropical deforestation with breakdown of industrial logging component. Chart from “Strategies and Perspectives of Influential Environmental Organizations Toward Tropical Deforestation,” by Lucie K. Ozanne and Paul M. Smith, in Forest Products Journal Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 39-49.

Mahogany logs leaving the Amazon forest in Brazil

Campbell Plowder, Greenpeace
Logging as a whole, both for domestic and international markets, is only one of many factors causing the destruction of primary tropical rainforests (see chart).

In many countries the pressures of poverty and overpopulation in settled areas are pushing (sometimes with government subsidies) many people to migrate into the sparsely populated, forested areas. These immigrants typically cut and burn the forests to create agricultural land. Rainforest soils are generally very thin and nutrient-poor, however, so within a few years the farmers are forced to abandon their fields and clear new land in order to continue growing crops.

Other commercial activities also destroy large areas of forest. Mining for minerals such as gold and bauxite (to make aluminum), and large hydroelectric projects are responsible for the destruction of large areas of forest in the Amazon .

Outside of Latin America the world’s largest remaining rainforests are in central Africa and southeast Asia. In the Asian forests logging is often the primary cause of deforestation, as it feeds into the booming economies of China, Taiwan, and Japan. In fact, Japan alone consumes about 40% of all wood traded internationally. Thailand and the Philippines are no longer significant exporters because so little of their forests are left, but the slack has been picked up by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.

Whether or not logging is directly the primary factor in tropical rainforest destruction, it frequently is a critical factor indirectly, because once a primary forest has been logged it is vulnerable to many of the other causes of deforestation. Roads and clearings left by loggers are used by settlers (legal or illegal) to reach new areas for agricultural expansion or mining. Careless logging practices typically destroy between 30% and 70% of the trees left behind, and cause severe erosion. Logging machinery compacts the often fragile soils, further damaging the forest. Finally, while unaltered rainforests never burn, breaks in the forest canopy and woody debris left behind by loggers allow dry material to accumulate, making the forest susceptible to fires.

In spite of all the international attention and public outcry about the destruction of tropical rainforests, the vast majority of logging operations continue with business as usual. The political and economic incentives in most of the world still reward the mining of primary forests for their commercially valuable trees with no accommodation for protecting other forest values, or even for the quality of the next harvest. Economically, harvesting contracts (concessions) to logging companies are almost never long enough to include subsequent cutting cycles, so the companies have no real incentive to manage the forest for future harvests. Politically, the forest inhabitants who best understand the multifaceted value of the standing forest have little or no voice in managing their homeland.


Plantation forestry is expanding, primarily because some commercial species are no longer available in significant quantity from natural forests. In Thailand, for example, export of all timber from natural forests was banned in the late 1980s, after nearly all the forests were lost. Teak plantations have been established there as a way to continue to supply the lucrative teak market. As with most cultivated, plantation-grown woods, however, the quality of the lumber is not the same. “Plantation teak is not as nice as natural teak,” said Rick Jackson of Cut & Dried Hardwoods in Solana Beach, California. “The growth rings aren’t as tight, and it’s more blotchy in color.”

Plantations are a mixed-bag ecologically—a bad replacement for primary forests, but a good use for previously depleted lands. They consist of single-species, uniform-aged stands of trees, so they offer none of the ecological benefits of a natural forest. Many tree species won't grow in a plantation setting because one or more of their requirements can’t be met outside of a natural rainforest.

Plantations may be planted on land recently cleared of primary forest, in which case they replace the secondary forest that would have naturally evolved (unless the land was kept clear for other uses). They can also be planted on degenerated land, from which the original forest was removed long ago. In either case, plantation trees are usually chemically fertilized, and competing trees and vines are often destroyed with herbicides.

Trying to Help

There have been a number of initiatives at all levels trying to deal with this problem of runaway deforestation. One of the most controversial is the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO). The ITTO was originally proposed in 1977 by the Japanese as a forum for working out commodity and trade issues, similar to trade groups that exist for many other materials. Environmentalists had enough voice in many European countries, however, to influence the organization’s charter. When the ITTO was finally established in 1983, it had the dual purpose of promoting trade in tropical timber while simultaneously encouraging sustainable use and conservation of tropical forests, and maintaining their ecological balance.

The ITTO’s voting structure is weighted according to volume of timber imports or exports, however, and not on the amount of standing forest. As a result, the ITTO’s primary role of promoting the timber trade heavily outweighs its secondary conservation role,” according to Marcus Colchester, writing in his World Rainforest Movement report, “The International Tropical Timber Organization: Kill or Cure for the Rainforests?” The ITTO has publicly announced a “Target 2000” goal of having all internationally traded timber come from sustainably harvested forests by the year 2000. Most in the forest conservation movement, however, aren’t expecting much from that initiative, as the ITTO has yet to describe sustainable management in terms other than sustained-yield harvesting (meaning not cutting more that will regenerate in some defined time-frame—which every timber company already claims to be doing). Furthermore, no mechanism has been established to monitor even such a limited claim. “There has been absolutely no accountability in the ITTO to the Target 2000 project,” said Richard Donovan, director of the Rainforest Alliance’s Smart Wood program, who represented American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the last ITTO meeting.

Many people have also looked to existing international conservation agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), for a mechanism that might protect vulnerable tropical tree species. By restricting or banning international trade in specific materials, CITES offers a way to reduce the markets for some endangered species. CITES lists species in four different appendices, ranging from an overall ban in trade (Appendix 1), to limited restrictions on trade (Appendix 4). Only a handful of tree species have been officially listed with CITES to date: seven in Appendix 1 and nine in Appendix 2. Such listings should reduce the likelihood of imminent extinction for these species, but are not expected to have much effect on larger forest-related concerns.

Some environmental groups have been pushing for import bans or consumer boycotts of all tropical timber until harvesting practices are verifiably consistent with long-term forest health. European countries, with limited domestic forest resources, have traditionally depended heavily on tropical woods. Now, in Germany and Austria, dozens of local and regional governments have legislated bans on the use of tropical woods in publicly funded construction projects. The State of Arizona and a handful of U.S. localities have passed similar measures.

Other forest conservation organizations have been critical of the ban or boycott approach, fearing that if markets for tropical woods are successfully depressed in industrialized countries, the perceived value of standing forests would be reduced even further, which would increase the pressure to clear forested land for other uses. More specifically, environmental groups promoting community-based conservation programs are concerned that the consumers who might be most likely to support their efforts (and buy their products) will instead be locked into a boycott of all tropical wood.

Models of Good Forestry

In academic circles there is an active debate about whether commercial logging in any fashion can take place without significant harm to natural forests. A few pristine areas that are particularly significant ecologically are candidates for preservation from all logging activities. The realities of population and economic pressures, however, dictate that most forests will be logged, so the search for models of good forestry is underway.

Within the context of large-scale, industrial forestry, many improvements are possible. Avoiding steeper slopes, river banks, and wetlands can greatly reduce the peripheral damage of logging operations. Road designs can be improved to reduce erosion and soil compaction. Even such an obvious measure as felling trees in a direction that will damage fewer of the remaining trees is new to many logging operations. While clear-cutting is the exception in most tropical rainforests, the selective cutting of 2% to 5% of the trees can destroy up to 75% of those remaining, and damage to over 50% is common, according to the World Resources Institute. Directional felling and other measures can reduce this damage to 20% or less in most cases.

Due to the enormous areas they control, incremental improvements to industrial logging operations can be significant, but they are hardly a long-term solution. For models of forest management that are truly approaching the ideals of sustainability and restoration, environmentalists are looking more and more to the small-scale examples of community-based conservation. In these programs small, locally owned and operated forestry operations, sawmills, and workshops with a strong commitment to protecting their forest resource produce lumber and wood products that are marketed directly to consumers.

Usually managed by indigenous people with many generations of knowledge about their forests, these operations represent an exciting and sensitive meeting of traditional culture with our industrialized economy. They frequently take advantage of many of the non-wood products available from their forests, including nuts, rubber, and various medicinal plants. Some of these operations build on ancient traditions of limited harvests and slow rotations of small agricultural areas that cycle back into rich forest. Many of these groups are not only producing usable lumber that is environmentally acceptable, they may actually be a critical factor in protecting their forests from being cleared for other uses.

Small operations struggle with certain built-in handicaps, however. Much of the wood they have for sale is of species that are unfamiliar to users abroad. While these woods often have outstanding qualities, everything from kiln schedules to workability to appropriate finishes and uses have to be learned. Their small size itself is a problem in an industry that is structured to provide large amounts of a few wood species on short notice. And finding capital for such operations is tricky in a climate that typically demands quick return on investments.

To survive economically, community-based conservation programs often rely on direct marketing to industrialized countries. Bypassing much of the international timber trade infrastructure allows suppliers to pay producers relatively high prices for lumber and wood products without making the cost prohibitive to the end-user. Direct-marketing also makes it feasible to track the many wood species involved, along with their specific source. The success of these operations is closely connected with the development of a whole new industry in the forestry arena: wood certification.


Independent, third-party certification of environmental claims is often promoted as a necessary measure to validate marketing claims and to improve public confidence in the products. Due to the sensitivity and high level of concern about forests, certification of forestry operations has received a lot of attention and is quite sophisticated. In fact, the proliferation of organizations that emerged to certify forestry operations has even spawned an oversight body, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

The FSC is just getting under way and no certifier is yet accredited, but there is a clear sense of common priorities among the organizations that have worked together to set up the oversight body. While several small groups are certifying forestry on a regional level, only four certifiers are active internationally: The Rainforest Alliance’s Smart Wood program and Scientific Certification Systems’ Forest Conservation Program of the U.S., and SGS Silviconsult and the Soil Association’s Responsible Forestry Program of the U.K.

Although they have their differences, these organizations share a general attitude of mutual respect, and buyers can reasonably rely on any one of them as responsible certifiers of good forest management. All four of these groups are careful to assess forestry operations on at least three realms: forest ecology, sustained-yield harvest, and local economic and cultural impacts. Many questions still remain about the long-term compatibility of logging on any scale with the optimum ecological health of the forest, but forestry that is certified under the above criteria is an immense improvement over common industrial logging. “We’re trying to overturn 6,000 to 8,000 years of bad forestry,” said John Curtis of the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP), “so it won’t be a quick process.”

Certifiers provide valuable technical expertise—at both the forestry and the marketing ends of the process—to new community-based programs. For industrial operations, they have the potential to provide a critical measure of real improvements, compared to the ideals of sustainable management. Plantation forestry is a very controversial issue among certifiers, yet the only industrial-scale operations certified to date are Smart Wood-certified plantations in Java, Indonesia. A key factor in the certification of plantations is whether or not they were converted from natural forests, according to Smart Wood’s director, Richard Donovan. “If conversion is a problem, they don’t even get to the drawing board,” said Donovan.

Using “Good Wood”

For all the progress that has been made towards consistent, reliable certification of forestry, the actual supply of certified tropical wood is still very small. The costs and effort required for certification are significant, and many commercial producers are waiting to determine how important it becomes in the international market. One effort to influence their choice is the 1995 Campaign from the World Wide Fund for Nature in the U.K., which asks wood product suppliers and retailers to commit to carrying only wood from “verifiably well-managed” forests by the end of 1995. Although the campaign does not explicitly demand certified wood, that is the goal, according to Gary Hartshorn of the group’s U.S. affiliate, the World Wildlife Fund.

In the U.S., a few large retailers such as Home Depot and Lowes are pushing suppliers to offer certified wood products (and other products with certified environmental advantages) and are carrying those products when possible. Home Depot is now replacing their lauan-skin hollow-core doors with a substitute made from eucalyptus called Prem-Wood™, and both these retailers are carrying entrance doors made from certified mahogany.

Ways You Can Help

Wood users and specifiers can be a key part of the solution in several ways.

Avoiding tropical wood that is a product of the conventional timber industry should be a high priority, sending the message that users are no longer interested in supporting the destruction of priceless resources. Using wood from well-managed tropical forests, on the other hand, is not merely acceptable but can actually be an important positive step. Some pioneers in this area in the last few years have had significant problems, however, so you should proceed carefully.

Expect delays in the supply, especially for large orders. Whenever possible, try out a species (and a supplier) on small test jobs before committing to it for a big project. The best suppliers are now equipped to remill and kiln-dry wood themselves when necessary, taking care of any flaws in the processing quality of wood shipped from abroad. “We deal with any remilling before the customer sees the wood,” said Tony Lent, vice president of EcoTimber™ in San Francisco, a leading supplier.

Using certified wood from plantations is not as beneficial as patronizing a forestry operation that is working to protect a natural forest, but it is still a positive step. Certification provides reasonable assurance that the wood is not from plantations that are replacing natural forests. Be aware that the quality of plantation-grown lumber may be inferior to slower-growing wood from natural forests.

While using wood from well-managed forests is the best choice, for many applications such wood just isn’t available for the time being. Lauan plywood, for example, is not produced anywhere from certified well-managed forests, and even the thinner panels of domestic plywood are often fabricated in Southeast Asia with lauan cores. If you’re specifying domestic birch or oak plywood with the intention of avoiding rainforest woods, be sure to check the core material. If it has that distinctive reddish-brown color, it is very likely lauan. Cores of domestically produced panels are typically Douglas fir, aspen, or yellow poplar, according to Bill Altman, president of the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association.

New panel products now being manufactured from recycled paper and other fibers may be the best alternative to thin lauan panels for many applications. The waffle-structured Gridcore™ (reviewed in EBN

Vol. 2, No. 5) and lightweight paperboard Unicor™ are being adapted by the stage- and movie-set industries as replacements for lauan plywood. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF), especially the formaldehyde-free Medite II™ (see EBN

Vol. 1, No. 1) may be appropriate where higher strength and moisture resistance are important. MDF is increasingly replacing wood veneers as the core stock of domestic hardwood plywood.

Even if you know certified wood isn’t available to meet your needs, specify it anyway. See the box for sample language to include in specifications, purchase orders, and bid requests. Adding such language will send the message up the supply channels that such wood is in demand. Forestry operations in many countries are eyeing the certification process warily, waiting for a strong market signal before they commit to it.

Even though certification is becoming more widespread and accepted, there are many well-managed forests producing wood that isn’t certified. The Smart Wood™ program has a special pre-certification status for operations with certifications pending. Others may not yet be in the pipeline but are recognized by groups like WARP as “Good Wood” sources. WARP updates annually its list of recommended producers and suppliers of wood products (see below).

Non-certified but well-managed sources should be supported, but they should also be encouraged to go through formal certification for two reasons: 1) the certification process itself is widely acclaimed for improving the practices of even the best forestry operations; and 2) as more and more suppliers are certified, the pressure will build on other companies to improve their operations and become certified as well. It is important to promote good management and independent certification of domestic forestry operations as well, not only to protect our forests, but also because many tropical countries resent being asked to meet forestry criteria not demanded of the temperate forests.

Summary of Recommendations

•Use certified wood from natural forests.

•Consider using plantation-grown certified wood.

•If you can’t use certified wood, specify it anyway.

•Use wood that is recognized by forest-conservation activists to come from well-managed forests.

•Instead of conventionally harvested tropical lumber, consider domestic hardwoods (especially those from certified sources) and wood salvaged from old buildings or other structures.

For more information:

The Earthscan Reader in Tropical Forestry, an excellent collection of articles from Earthscan Publications edited by Simon Rietbergen of the World Bank. Tropical Forestry is distributed in the U.S. by St. Lucie Press Corp., 100 E. Linton Boulevard, Suite 403B, Delray Beach, FL 33483; 407/274-9906, 407/274-9927 (fax).

Surviving the Cut: Natural Forest Management in the Humid Tropics. World Resources Institute report by Nels Johnson and Bruce Caberle, February 1993. Available from World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006; 202/638-6300.

Scientific Certification Systems, Inc.

The Ordway Building

One Kaiser Plaza, Suite 901

Oakland, CA 94612

510/832-1415, 510/832-0359 (fax)

Smart Wood Program

Rainforest Alliance

65 Bleecker Street

New York, NY 10012-2420

202/677-1900, 212/677-2187 (fax)

Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP)

Yurij Bihun, Executive Director

PO Box 157

Underhill Center, VT 05490


Understory (WARP’s member publication)

One Cottage Street

Easthampton, MA 01027

Published September 1, 1994

(1994, September 1). Tropical Timber: Seeing the Forest for the Trees. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/tropical-timber-seeing-forest-trees