The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: China’s Appetite for Wood Takes a Heavy Toll on Forests

China’s Appetite for Wood
Takes a Heavy Toll on Forests

More than half of the timber now shipped globally is destined for China. But unscrupulous Chinese companies are importing huge amounts of illegally harvested wood, prompting conservation groups to step up boycotts against rapacious timber interests.

by william laurance

In Chinese folklore, a dragon symbolizes strength. It is an apt icon for a nation whose rise as an economic superpower has been nothing short of meteoric.

While China’s stunning economic advances have come at significant environmental cost, the boom has been a plus in a few realms. The country is investing avidly in green technologies, such as solar energy and high-tech car batteries. It has also undertaken an ambitious national reforestation program, while cracking down on illegal forest clearing and logging inside its borders. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, forest cover in China, including large areas of timber plantations, increased from 157 million hectares in 1990 to 197 million hectares in 2005.

Counter-intuitively, the expansion of Chinese forests has occurred at the same time the country has been developing an immense export industry for

In its fervor to secure timber, China is increasingly seen as a predator on the world’s forests.

wood and paper products. China is now the “wood workshop for the world,” according to Forest Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, consuming more than 400 million cubic meters of timber annually to feed both its burgeoning exports and growing domestic demands. Production of paper products has also grown dramatically in China, doubling from 2002 to 2007.

But the rise of the Chinese dragon has a darker side. As much as half of the timber and much of the paper pulp consumed by China is imported, primarily from tropical nations or nearby Siberia. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this — China has every right to grow economically and seek the kind of prosperity that industrial nations have long enjoyed. However, in its fervor to secure timber, minerals, and other natural resources, China is increasingly seen as a predator on the world’s forests.



China is now overwhelmingly the biggest global consumer of tropical timber, importing around 40 to 45 million cubic meters of timber annually. Today, more than half of all timber being shipped anywhere in the world is destined for China. Many nations in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa export the lion’s share of their timber to China.

China faces three criticisms by those worried about the health and biodiversity of the world’s forests. First, the country and its hundreds of wood-products corporations and middlemen have been remarkably aggressive in pursuing timber supplies globally, while generally being little concerned with social equity or environmental sustainability. For instance, China has helped fund and promote an array of ambitious new road or rail projects that are opening up remote forested regions in the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Asia-Pacific to exploitation. Such frontier roads can unleash a Pandora’s Box of activities — including illegal colonization, hunting, mining, and land speculation — that are often highly destructive to forests.

View photos
Sumatra Deforestation

Courtesy of William Laurance
Vast expanses of Sumatran rainforest are being turned into paper pulp.

China is also a major consumer of wood pulp, which is helping to drive large-scale deforestation in places like Sumatra and Borneo. During a recent visit to Sumatra, I witnessed the felling of large expanses of native rainforests, which are being chopped up and fed into the world’s largest wood-pulp plant, located nearby, and replaced by monocultures of exotic acacia trees.

Second, China, in its relentless pursuit of timber, almost exclusively seeks raw logs. Raw logs are the least economically beneficial way for developing nations to exploit their timber resources, as they provide only limited royalties and little employment, workforce training, and industrial development. As a result, most of the profits from logging are realized by foreign timber-cutters, shippers, and wood-products manufacturers. A cubic meter of the valuable timber merbau (Intsia bijuga), for instance, yields only around $11 to local communities in Indonesian Papua but around $240 when delivered as raw logs to wood-products manufacturers in China, who profit further by converting it into prized wood flooring.

Finally, China has done little to combat the scourge of illegal logging, which is an enormous problem in many developing nations. A 2011 report on illegal logging by Interpol and the World Bank concluded that, among 15 of the major timber-producing countries in the tropics, two-thirds had half or more of their timber harvested illegally. Globally, economic losses and tax and royalty evasion from illegal logging are thought to cost around $15 billion annually — a large economic burden for developing nations. Forest ecosystems suffer serious impacts as well, because illegal loggers frequently ignore environmental controls on cutting operations.

According to a 2010 analysis by Chatham House, a respected UK think tank, illegal logging is slowly declining globally but this is despite, rather than because of, China’s influence. The report concluded that, from 2000 to 2008, China imported 16 to 24 million cubic meters of illegal timber each

One report said that China imports 16 to 24 million cubic meters of illegal timber each year.

year. This is an incredible figure — twice the total amount imported annually by leading industrial nations.

Around a third of Chinese timber imports are ultimately exported, as furniture, plywood, flooring, disposable chopsticks, and other wood products. European countries, the U.S, and Japan are the biggest importers, with consumers there often unaware of the illicit origin of many wood products from China.

When it comes to illegal or predatory logging, it has not been easy to get China’s attention. Stories about illegal logging rarely penetrate the Chinese news media. For example, in 2006 the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), an international scientific organization, held its annual conference in Kunming, China. At the time I was president of the ATBC, and I spoke at length to Chinese journalists about the problem of illegal logging and the risks it posed for Chinese exporters. To my knowledge, not a single story about my concerns was reported in China, even though I emailed the journalists a summary of my comments translated into Mandarin Chinese.

Outside China, the story is different. Awareness of the rapacious nature of Chinese timber interests is growing, especially since a 2005 report by a green group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, that detailed massive illegal logging and timber theft in the Indonesian state of Papua. Smuggled timber from Papua arrived in mainland China via international criminal syndicates involving corrupt Indonesian insiders, Malaysian loggers, and Singaporean shippers. Other groups, such as the World Resources Institute, Forest Trends, WWF, and Greenpeace, have laid similar claims against China. With mainstream organizations such as the World Bank, Interpol, and Chatham House joining in, what began as murmurs of concern is becoming a loud clamor for change.

This is a dangerous situation for Chinese businesses and exporters. Influential environmental organizations in Europe and North America have their eye on China. For example, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has waged a campaign urging corporate customers to avoid paper and pulp products originating from two of Indonesia’s largest corporations, Asian

Efforts to combat illicit timber imports are finally beginning to gain some traction in China.

Pulp & Paper (APP) and APRIL, which are felling large expanses of native rainforest for wood pulp. The pulp and paper have been used by Chinese manufacturers to make branded products for scores of well-known companies around the world. Some of those companies — including Gucci, Scholastic, Hachette, and Tiffany & Co. — have switched to recycled and sustainably certified paper products. As of this year, other companies — including Prada, American Greetings, Marc Jacobs, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins publishing — are continuing to use APP or APRIL paper products supplied by Chinese manufacturers, according to RAN.

Such actions could have a big impact on Chinese exports. Boycotts initiated by green groups can have a major influence on consumer preferences and have forced some of the largest retail chains in North America and Europe, such as Walmart and Ikea, to limit products sourced from old-growth forests. Meanwhile, eco-certified timber products accounted for $7.4 billion in sales in the U.S. alone in 2005, and were expected to grow to $38 billion there by 2010. At some point, Chinese companies will buck the trend toward sustainable logging at their peril.

Adding teeth to such consumer actions are tougher laws and initiatives in industrial nations. In particular, new provisions to the Lacey Act in the U.S., and the European Union Timber Action Plan in Europe are increasingly holding corporations that import illicit timber products responsible for their actions.

One senses that efforts to combat illicit timber imports are finally beginning to gain some traction in China. The relevant government agencies are now engaged, and the country has commissioned an analysis of its role as an importer of illegal timber and released draft guidelines to improve sustainability of its timber-importing corporations. It also recently hosted the Asia Forest Partnership Dialogue 2011, in Beijing, designed to assess progress in efforts to combat illegal logging in Asia over the last decade.

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However, China still has no national action plan or legislation to prevent the import of illegally sourced timber, and no formal trade arrangements with major timber-producing countries designed to improve enforcement. Despite dominating the global timber market, Chinese wood-products corporations feel little pressure from buyers to improve the legality of their timber products and consider it largely unimportant to their future competitiveness, according to the Chatham House report.

The bottom line: China’s efforts to limit the environmental impacts of its burgeoning timber imports are still mostly lip-service, with little practical impact.

Check the labels when you shop for any wood or paper products. If it says, “Made in China,” be wary of the dragon, and think twice before buying.

Busting the Forest Myths:
People as Part of the Solution

The long-held contention that rural forest communities are the prime culprits in tropical forest destruction is increasingly being discredited, as evidence mounts that the best way to protect rainforests is to involve local residents in sustainable management.

by fred pearce

Some forest campaigners have been saying it for years, but now they have the research to prove it: Local communities are the most effective managers of their forests, best able to combine sustainable harvests with conservation.

A series of studies unveiled in the past year have skewered the long-held view — still espoused by many governments and even some in the environmental community — that poor forest dwellers are the prime culprits in deforestation and that the best conservation option is to combine strict ecosystem protection in some areas with intensive cultivation elsewhere.

Here are seven myths punctured by recent research.

Myth One: Forests prevent short-term rural wealth generation. Forest communities therefore have an economic incentive to get rid of them and replace them with permanent farms. Forest protection requires curbing them.

Reality: A six-year global study of forest use, deforestation and poverty conducted by the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has found that harvested natural resources make up the largest component of incomes from people living in and around tropical forests. Nature contributes 31 percent of household income, more than crop farming (29 percent), wages (14 percent), or raising livestock (12 percent).

Forests emerge from the study — the result of detailed interviews conducted by Ph. D. students at 8,000 households in 24 countries — as important sources of food, firewood, and construction materials that

Deforestation rates are substantially higher on lands protected by the state than in community-managed forests.

communities want to protect. But this forest fecundity is largely ignored by policymakers, says Frances Seymour, CIFOR’s director-general, who presented many of the findings at the Royal Society in London last June, ahead of publication in peer-reviewed journals. “This income is largely invisible in national statistics,” she said, because the produce is either consumed in the home or sold in local markets unmonitored by national data-collectors.

Myth Two: Deforestation is carried out mainly by the poorest farmers, often as a coping strategy to get through bad times. What they need is economic development to wean them away from the forests.

Reality: The same CIFOR study found that within forest communities it is the rich who take more from the forests. They have the means, wielding chainsaws rather than machetes. But they are also the top dogs, able to assert control of community-run forests. “We see that at the level of households within villages, but also at a national and international level, where deforestation has been faster in Latin America, which is richer,” says Seymour.

The study found that just over a quarter of all households clear some forest each year, with an average take of 1.3 hectares, mostly to grow crops. But the bottom line is that deforestation is usually a source of wealth for the rich in good times, rather than a coping strategy for the poor. In bad times, the poor are more likely to leave the forest in search of wages than to stay and trash the place, says CIFOR principal scientist Sven Wunder.

Myth Three: Forest protection, many governments say, cannot be entrusted to local communities. It is best done by state authorities, perhaps with help from environmental NGOs, on land under the control of the state.

Reality: A recent meta-analysis of case studies found that deforestation rates are substantially higher on lands “protected” by the state than in

There was greater biodiversity in the low-intensity farming area than in primary forest.

community managed forests. There are well-known maps showing that the best protected parts of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, are those designated as native reserves, run by the Kayapo Indians and others. This seems to be the rule rather than the exception, Luciana Porter-Bolland, of the Institute of Ecology in Veracruz, Mexico, and others concluded.

When the state is in charge, rules are barely enforced, corruption is frequent, and forest dwellers have little stake in protecting forest resources, because they do not own them. Where the people who live there control the forests, they are much more likely to protect them.

The analysis confirms a global study two years ago by Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who, with Arun Agrawal, compared data on forest ownership with the carbon stored in forests and found that community forests held more. “Our findings show that we can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities,” says Chhatre.

Myth Four: Agriculture is bad for biodiversity.

Reality: It sounds like a no-brainer. Of course, intensive farming will wreck forest ecosystems and replace them with monocultures. But traditional farming systems are often biodiverse, and may take place within forest ecosystems, rather than replacing them. New research in Oaxaca state in Mexico suggests that such farms enhance forest biodiversity.

James Robson and Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba investigated the impact of the recent widespread desertion of forests by Oaxaca farmers

Small-scale forest enterprises have contributed substantially to forest conservation and poverty reduction.

heading for the cities. The natural forest reclaimed their fields and orchards, but the result was an overall loss of biodiversity. The authors concluded that traditional low-intensity farming systems within forests had created a “high biodiversity forest-agriculture mosaic” that exceeded that in primary forest, but that disappeared with the farmers. In other words, there was greater biodiversity in the low-intensity farming area than in primary forest.

This may be no isolated finding. CIFOR’s Christine Padoch said the Oaxaca study showed that “rapid urbanization, simplified agricultural systems and abandonment of local resource-use traditions are sweeping across the forested tropics.”

Myth Five: Illegal local wood-cutters are a major threat to forests. Much better to maximize both production and conservation by curbing local wood-cutters and allowing commercial loggers to take over those forests set aside for “productive” use. Commercial loggers are, it is argued, easier to police and can operate according to strict rules on sustainability, such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Reality: There is a serious downside to this approach. In central and West African countries such as Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Liberia, small-scale logging by locals is often a much bigger contributor to local economies and employment than large-scale enterprises. Moreover, most lumber harvested by this informal sector is processed locally for furniture and other local needs, whereas large-scale enterprises mostly export the timber as logs.

It is far from clear that the local wood-cutters do more damage than outside loggers. But a study by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative found that they produce more benefits for their local communities, in jobs, income, and products. And, like other local forest users, they may be more amenable to community controls on their activities. Andy White, the coordinator of the initiative, concluded that small-scale forest enterprises “have contributed substantially to equity, forest conservation, and poverty reduction. Supporting their development and suspending public support for large-scale industrial concessions should be key priorities.”

Myth Six: Degraded forest land is a wasteland that should be targeted for high-intensity agriculture such as oil-palm cultivation and timber plantations. Many environmentalists encourage this. For instance, the World Resources Institute is mapping Indonesian degraded lands to help the government there “divert new oil palm plantation development onto degraded lands instead of expanding production into natural forests.”

Reality: This is risky. A study in Borneo, a major biodiversity hotspot, found that, even after repeated logging, degraded forests retain 75 percent of bird and dung-bettle species, which were chosen to represent wider biodiversity. The indiscriminate conversion of these forests to oil-palm and

‘Natural resource protection can only be achieved if the rights of forest-dwelling people are respected,’ says one advocate.

other intensive agriculture is a big mistake, says David Edwards, co-author of the study and now at James Cook University in Australia. “Degraded forests retain much of the biodiversity found in primary forests. Conservationists ignore them at their peril.”

Myth Seven: To prevent further forest destruction, we urgently need to intensify agriculture. This is often called the Borlaug hypothesis after its originator, the green revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug. He argued that the more we can grow on existing farmland, the less pressure there will be to clear forests for growing more crops.

Reality: The counter-argument is that commercial farmers don’t clear forests to feed the world; they do it to make money. So helping farmers become more efficient and more productive won’t reduce the threat. It will increase it.

Thomas Rudel of Rutgers University in New Jersey compared trends in national agricultural yields with the amount of land planted with cropssince 1990. He argued that if Borlaug was right, then the spread of cropland should be least in countries where yields rose fastest. Sadly not. Mostly, yields and cultivated area rose together, as farming became more profitable.

All this raises vital issues for forest protection. Twenty years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, sustainable development was declared the key to a green and equitable global future. But nobody quite knew what it meant. The UN is planning a follow-up Rio+20 event this June, and the question of what is meant by “sustainable development” will come under intense examination.

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Many industrialists there will argue that sustainability requires high-intensity, high-efficiency economic activity that can produce the products we need without taking over wild areas such as rainforests. But the recent findings from CIFOR and others strongly suggest that may be the wrong way to go. Perhaps forests and other ecosystems can be protected best by protecting the land rights of their inhabitants, and by trusting their knowledge, priorities and management skills.

As the Rights and Resources Initiative’s Andy White puts it: “Global natural resource protection and production for the benefit of all will only be achieved in coming decades if the rights of rural and forest-dwelling people in the developing world are respected.”

A Revolutionary Technology is
Unlocking Secrets of the Forest

A new imaging system that uses a suite of airborne sensors is capable of providing detailed, three-dimensional pictures of tropical forests — including the species they contain and the amount of CO2 they store — at astonishing speed. These advances could play a key role in preserving the world’s beleaguered rainforests.

by rhett butler

This summer, high above the Amazon rainforest in Peru, a team of scientists and technicians conducted an ambitious experiment using a pioneering technology. Deploying a pair of sweeping lasers that sent 400,000 pulses per second toward the ground, as well as an imaging spectrometer that could detect the chemical and light-reflecting properties of individual plants and trees 7,000 feet below, the researchers were able to instantaneously gather a vast amount of information about the unexplored tracts of cloud forest that passed beneath their airplane.

Conceived by Greg Asner, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the new system — known as AToMS, or the Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System — has the potential to transform how tropical forest research is

View gallery
Carnegie Airborne Observatory Peru Forest

Carnegie Airborne Observatory
CAO instrumentation unveils the 3-D structural and chemical diversity of tropical forests

conducted. By combining several breakthrough technologies, Asner and his colleagues can capture detailed images of individual trees at a rate of 500,000 or more per minute, enabling them to create a high-resolution, three-dimensional map of the physical structure of the forest, as well as its chemical and optical properties. In Peru, the scientists hoped to not only determine what tree species lay below, but also to gauge how the ecosystem was responding to last year’s drought — the worst ever recorded in the Amazon — as well as help Peru develop a better mechanism for monitoring deforestation and degradation.

Asner’s new system, a significant advance on the so-called Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) that he originally developed in 2006, could also play a vital role in global forestry in the decades ahead. The technology could help alleviate uncertainty about carbon emissions from deforestation and different forms of forest management, both of which are critical to the emerging policy of REDD (Reducing Emissions form Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a UN program that aims to compensate tropical countries for preserving their forests.

“The whole idea was to measure each of the things plant ecologists measure on the ground to evaluate biodiversity,” said Asner, as he flew over the Amazonian cloud forest. Asner is now helping the National Science Foundation develop an airplane with this suite of monitoring technologies, and is in talks with NASA about equipping a satellite with the system.

One of the key technologies Asner uses is known as LiDAR, which employs two powerful lasers to blast through canopy vegetation, reach the forest

The sensors detect dozens of chemical signals and can distinguish individual plant species.

floor, and return a wealth of information about the forest’s structure. Depending on the aircraft’s altitude, sensors can map the forest at resolutions ranging from 10 centimeters to one meter, fine enough to “see” understory shrubs and epiphytes in tree crowns. LiDAR is also very good for measuring aboveground biomass, or the amount of carbon stored in a forest’s vegetation. It can also detect surface elevations to identify watersheds and waterways.

To truly understand an ecosystem, however, scientists need to know more about its characteristics, including aspects that can’t be been with the naked eye. This is where Asner’s CAO really sets itself apart, using newly developed sensors — built by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — that can detect dozens of signals, including photosynthetic pigment concentrations, water content of leaves, defense compounds like phenols, structural compounds such as lignin and cellulose, as well as phosphorous and other micronutrients — all of which can be used to build signatures to distinguish individual plant species, as well as other measures of forest condition. The result, using the so-called VSWIR Imaging Spectrometer, is a system that can map the chemical and spectral attributes of a forest that may have more than 200 species of trees in a single hectare.

“When leaves interact with sunlight, the compounds bend, stretch, and vibrate at different patterns and rates,” said Asner. “These different rates led to different scattering of light. The spectrometer picks up on this and we’ve been able to deduce chemicals from these signatures.”

But for the CAO to accurately assess biodiversity, Asner’s team has to first do the groundwork by creating a database of the chemical and spectral properties of various plants, which are then fed into the CAO’s library of information on individual plant species. These are then correlated with the

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data collected by the CAO’s various sensors. In the Amazon, Asner and his team conducted extensive, on-the-ground work to compile information on nearly 5,000 plant species. “We have the best team of tree climbers in the world,” said Asner. “They can climb 75 trees a day, conducting full sampling.”

The aircraft that carries the system allows Asner’s team to map very large areas, sometimes more than 49,000 hectares (120,000 acres) a day. In 2009, using an older, less sophisticated version of the system, Asner mapped 4.3 million hectares of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Now he is working on a bigger scale: nearly the entire Peruvian Amazon. After this, he goes to Colombia and Panama.

“We’re looking at biodiversity in regions that have never been put down on the science map,” said Asner.

Source: Yale Environment

SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 

Editorial: Selvavidasinfronteras.org

Selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 23 February, 2012.

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