Can tropical forests be logged sustainably and still maintain their incredibly rich biodiversity — and benefits to people? A new study published in the journal Conservation Letters provides evidence that, with smart forest management, the answer can be “yes.”
As a forest scientist and a co-author on this article, I believe our findings confirm a critical middle way forward in protecting tropical forests: maintaining the diversity of tropical forest plants and animals, reducing carbon pollution, securing economic opportunities for local communities, and recognizing that the world’s growing population will continue to have significant needs for timber.
Why a “middle way”? Why not just focus on halting logging of these forests wherever possible?
After all, our article does find that fully protected forests are often better at conserving more plants and animals than forests managed for timber. Also, cutting trees in the tropics generates as much carbon pollution as all the cars, planes, boats, and trains in the world. That’s why a lot of organizations like The Nature Conservancy, where I work, see protecting tropical forests as a powerful part of the solution to climate change.
But what happens when tropical forest logging is halted?
For one thing, what happens to the people in tropical forest regions who depend upon logging to put bread or rice on the table for their families? Getting rid of logging jobs may backfire as a conservation goal if the alternative livelihoods involve forest conversion. (We’ve seen this in Borneo, where villages face the option of engaging timber companies or oil palm companies…or attempting to refuse both and relying on subsistence agriculture.) Another problem: some builders might replace wood with another material like steel or cement, and the process of making those other materials generates more carbon pollution than wood. Furthermore, in some places loggers are a stronger force for forest protection than national parks. This dynamic has been demonstrated in community-managed forests of Mexico and Guatemala.
These are reasons why we considered the implications of a “middle way” in tropical forest conservation: a path that integrates logging and conservation. Our study reviews over 100 scientific papers and concludes that, in places with improved forest management practices, selectively logged tropical forests retain the lion’s share of their plants and animals (85-100%) and carbon (roughly 75%). Not only that: timber yields can be sustained, albeit at a lower timber volume than the first cut.
In other words, tropical forests are surprisingly resilient to damage, as long as they are not completely cleared for another land use.
The challenge is to strike the right balance between striving for full protection for forests that have the highest conservation value and promoting good forest management where protection is not feasible or optimal. Certification standards like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are important tools to achieve this, yet less than 1% of tropical forests have been certified as “well managed.”
Our continuing research on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia is showing that nearly half of the impacts from logging operations can be avoided through better forest management. For example, we can replace bulldozers — which require wide logging roads in the forests and knock over all sorts of non-commercial trees as they do their logging work — with much smaller winching machines that slide logs out on narrow trails.
But reduced-impact logging techniques are a controversial idea in the conservation community because they mean approaching logging companies as potential allies in forest conservation.
We need to remember this: established logging companies are usually the only major industry touching these remote landscapes that share one fundamental interest with conservationists: keeping forests as forests. As such, logging companies, including everything from multinational corporations to community-based logging, can be a powerful ally for conservation. What’s more, they have legal tenure over nearly a quarter of the world’s tropical forests — substantially more area than all the tropical protected areas on Earth.
Still, we should not forget that logging is a violent act. I am thinking of my first trip to Borneo. I was up at dawn to hear the raucous hoots of gibbons — acrobats of the ape family. The morning mists lifted off the jungle mountain side to reveal blotches of bare red earth, like shrapnel wounds in the green patchwork of canopies. These were gaps in the trees revealing bulldozer roads carved into the mountainside. Many of these wounds can be avoided with improved logging practices, but some are unavoidable.
I should be more thrifty in my use of wood products, so I hold that image of the red scars beneath the mists of Borneo close to heart as a reminder of the price that is paid. Even so, in places like these where we are unable to ensure total protection, our study shows that native tropical forests can produce timber, provide local jobs and store carbon — all while supporting the lion’s share of biodiversity. Conservation needs to move past ideology to constructive action. The astonishing diversity of tropical forests, the people who live in and near them, and our climate all depend upon it.
Bronson Griscom, Ph.D., is Director of Forest Carbon Science for The Nature Conservancy.
Photo by: Bridget Besaw/TNC. The Nature Conservancy’s Bambang Wahyudi (center) works with logging companies to practice reduced-impact logging (RIL). Limited External Rights.
 Our study focused on “selectively logged forests” because nearly all logging in tropical forests is “selective” — only a small proportion of the tree species in tropical forests are actually commercially valuable. But getting those commercial trees out of the forest usually involves a lot of unnecessary damage to the non-commercial trees — which is why improved forest management practices are key.
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