Good Wood

It may seem counterintuitive, but specifying tropical hardwoods from well-managed sources actually helps to conserve tropical forests and strengthen communities.

09/01/2011 By Bob Johnston

For designers and specifiers who want to make a positive impact with socially responsible design and product sourcing decisions, there is no bigger or better place to start than with tropical forests and wood products. Tropical forests account for roughly half of the world’s forested area and more than a billion of the world’s rural poor rely on forests for a substantial portion of their incomes. The decisions made by designers in the West can benefit or harm hundreds of millions of people and the world’s most ecologically rich biome.

The design community can play a critical role in the conservation of tropical forests by providing the demand that sustains them: demand for tropical wood products. Though at first counterintuitive, specifying tropical hardwoods from well-managed sources actually encourages sustainable forestry and helps to conserve tropical forests. If tropical timber products are not in demand, the forest is often destroyed and the land is converted into agriculture, which is perceived to have a greater economic value.

Tropical hardwoods are aesthetically pleasing, often have durability not found in other woods, and are desired in both commercial and consumer markets. By specifying tropical wood products, designers and specifiers in Northern markets such as the United States, Canada and Europe can encourage sustainable management of forests and aid the development of communities that rely on them.

improved practices and demand makes a difference
While some tropical forests need to be preserved for their unparalleled biological diversity and other irreplaceable attributes, just as in developed nations, developing countries are dependent on their forest products for income. Conventional forestry practices, however, lead to forest degradation and can contribute to the loss of forests if roads are abandoned and migrants slash and burn to create land for agriculture.

Improved forestry practices, such as Reduced Impact Logging (RIL), offer a sustainable solution to timber harvesting and improve profits. Compared to conventional logging, RIL minimizes the impact on soil, streams, wildlife and non-harvest trees while reducing operating costs and wood waste. Forests managed using RIL provide the necessary revenue to sustain their economic value and simultaneously maintain their ecological integrity.

Demand for tropical forest products has also been widely recognized as a crucial factor in conserving tropical forests since the Smithsonian Tropical Forestry Workshop of 1989. The three core principles that emerged from the workshop are:

  1. Tropical forests will be conserved only if they have economic value
  2. Blanket bans and embargoes tend to depress the value of hardwoods and the forests
  3. Funds obtained from products of the tropical forests must be channeled into managing and regenerating those forests

Conservation of tropical forests and demand for the products they supply exist in a symbiotic relationship. When supplying tropical wood products is profitable, companies are encouraged to maintain the forests sustainably to ensure their continued productivity. This, in turn, produces revenue that can be reinvested in the forest to further sustainable practices.

International markets represent a key purchasing group for suppliers of tropical timber. Northern markets have higher expectations on social, environmental and legal parameters regarding wood products, and accordingly, they pay better. Producers of wood products are therefore compelled to raise their standards relative to these issues in order to maintain access to better paying markets.

Of course, the simplest way to be recognized among suppliers and consumers in developed countries is to attain certification. However, the certifications that are most familiar in the Northern Hemisphere are also the most time-intensive and expensive to attain in the tropics.

The Tropical Forest Foundation (TFF) acts as a first step in certification by offering on-the-ground training to forestry companies and communities, teaching them how to reduce their impact on forests and harvest their products in a sustainable manner. As these companies become more visible in the international market and receive demand for their products, they are able and encouraged to expand their sustainable practices and take additional steps to become certified.

the benefit to communities
With so many impoverished communities depending on forests for their livelihoods, demand from international markets is a vital source of revenue. Committed buyers in the West not only encourage companies to continue to manage their traditional forest areas sustainably, but also provide the incentive for them to invest in the welfare of surrounding communities.

When implementing sustainable forest management practices, companies are obliged to take into account the needs of local communities. This takes place through a process of identifying high conservation values that include environmental and social services essential to the well-being of the community. TFF works with several communities in Indonesia that have received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and have exemplary community programs that include free medical services, schooling and scholarship programs for higher education. Another timber concession supported by TFF has adopted labor intensive but low-impact technology that provides significant opportunities for local contractors, and draws communities into the planning and operations of the forest.

The development of tropical forests and communities is mutually complementary and beneficial; improved services and standards in tropical communities support the long-term health of the forest, which in turn encourages further development of the community.

“Properly managed forests are fundamentally sustainable,” says Art Klassen, project director at TFF-Indonesia, an affiliate of the Tropical Forest Foundation. “They provide improved social services, continued employment opportunities and healthy environmental services ranging from a good water supply to a healthy and abundant fish population in the rivers.”

how designers can make a difference
Though tropical forests may be half a world away, Northern markets have significant influence on the success of sustainably managed forests. By keeping them in mind during the specification process, designers and specifiers can help ensure that tropical forests and communities prosper.

The single most important action that designers and specifiers can take to benefit forests and communities is to specify tropical hardwoods from well-managed forests. By choosing tropical woods over alternatives, the design community influences demand for tropical timber products. Demand from international markets gives the tropical forest value that it would not otherwise have, which in turn encourages further implementation of sustainable practices.

Members of the design community can also educate themselves on non-traditional timber species and actively promote their specification, expanding the value of the tropical forest beyond traditional species. Finally, the design community can look for other certification labels. There are several alternatives such as TFF’s RIL Verified® and the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartStep, both of which are highly effective in auditing sustainable forest management practices, and encourage the ecological and social health of the forest and community in the long term.


Bob Johnston is executive director of the Tropical Forest Foundation (TFF). TFF is an international, non-profit, educational institution committed to advancing environmental stewardship, economic prosperity and social responsibility through sustainable forest management in tropical regions.


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