Exploitation of tropical forests unsustainable

December 4, 2019

Eugene Kraamwinkel in Shanghai, China.

The International Forum Together Towards Green Supply Chains Forest Products Initiative was held in Shanghai, China, recently. Industry leaders from Africa, Europe, South America, USA, and Asia attended this forum to ensure the sustainable future exploitation of natural tropical forests over all continents.

By Eugene Kraamwinkel

All levels of stakeholders were represented at the conference including Forestry ministers of different countries, concession holders, timber procurement companies, sawmill owners and manufacturing, and timber sales companies. The representation and the panel discussions elevated concerns for the future of tropical forests all over the world.

The financial incentives for governments and private sector are the driving force behind the ongoing exploitation of the indigenous tropical forests worldwide. The exploitation and the financial benefits is however not reflected in the progressive planting of high-value forestry timber or re-establishment procedures in these areas. Mass migration is taking place due to the livelihood depletion of forest dwellers prevented from exploiting the forests for their own use, the lack of investment in these areas and the lack of job creation by the companies reaping the financial benefits.

The Concession holders made it clear that the felling of trees is not the same as destroying the forests, and that communities do not have a clear understanding of the forestry industry. In their view, it is mainly subsistence farmers clearing forests for agricultural use who are destroying the forests. It became clear from the discussions, that the concession holders did not have an idea of the impact of their prolonged mismanagement of the natural resources. They focused on the fact that the development in the countries goes hand in hand with the development of the timber industry. The income from timber sales is what is fueling the growth in the economies of these countries.

Vietnam is used as an example of how the economy is booming from the exploitation of timber but the governments needs to be cautious about over-exploitation. The production from the Solomon Islands (2.7 million m³) and Papua New Guinea (3.1million m³) at the 2017 rate is not sustainable, and the experts predict that these forest resources will be depleted within the next decade.

The main tropical timber log trade is with China, which imported 14.8million m³ tropical hardwoods in 2017. Thailand exported 4.8 million m³ of the sawn timber to China and a further 4.3 million m³ were supplied from China Forest Plantations.

Most of us were dumbstruck by the volumes of timber flowing into China. The question remained, what happens to this timber after processing? It is here that it becomes interesting. The biggest single importer of high-value tropical timber furniture is the USA ($20.4 billion) and the EU ($15.3 billion). The main markets for the finished products from France is again Switzerland, United States, Norway, and Russia.

The message from the panels were reasonably clear. The current status of forest is deteriorating at an alarming rate. We keep emphasizing timber legality and do not want to look at sustainability. This forum was a wake-up call for governments and the forestry industry as a whole, but will definitely not deter the greedy.

The State Forestry Administration of China has already identified the imminent timber shortages, locking up their own tropical forests by enforcing a 10-year ban on commercial logging of natural forests from 2017. Further to this, China’s five year plan (2016-2020) aims to increase the afforested area by over 23% of their total land area in order to increase their forest stock to 1.4 billion m³.

Maybe something the South African Government needs to consider.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, November 2019

Related article: Saving the wild pepper-bark trees

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