UN tries to slow deforestation by boosting African timber industry
United Nations, N.Y.
Will a more efficient timber industry in Africa promote the conservation or the destruction of the continent's rain forests? This question is being asked at the UN Development Program (UNDP) in connection with two projects aimed at enhancing Africa's timber trade and increasing its profitability.Skip to next paragraph
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UNDP will spend $1.7 million to reactivate the tropical timber industry in 13 countries in western and central Africa. And it will spend $3.2 million to promote trade in forest products, develop marketing strategies, and rehabilitate the forestry industry (mostly tree plantations) in eastern and southern Africa.
For an agency that has been warning the world of the impending catastrophe of deforestation, UNDP's promotion of the African timber industry may sound like a contradiction. But, if the industry improves its cost efficiency, its timber will become more competitive on international markets, and the countries involved will not have to cut down more and more forests to make a profit, says Jorge Lissner, one of the projects designers. They will also be encouraged to replant logged areas to provide for future exports.
``There is no profitability in the long term without conservation,'' he says. ``Either governments will replant, or they will be sawing off the branches on which they're sitting.''
Some environmentalists, however, are especially concerned that the West African project may destroy some of Africa's last virgin forests (West and Central Africa hold 18 percent of the world's remaining rain forests.) They are skeptical about both projects, saying that logging and conservation rarely - if ever - go hand in hand.
``There are few, if any, known cases where this has been done sustainably,'' says David Wirth of the Natural Resource Defense Council in Washington. ``These rain forests are very complicated ecological structures. ... Once a forest is gone, it's virtually impossible to reconstruct.''
Some experts fear that, as logging is streamlined, making short-term profits is likely to override long-term conservation.
``That is a risk,'' admits Mr. Lissner. However, he insists that ``we are not accelerating the depletion of the forest. The trees would be cut anyway. The purpose of the project is to increase profitability by proper grading and more efficient collection of timber, and the negotiating of lower ocean freight prices.''
Africa has lost 50 percent of its forests since 1900. UNDP estimates that 55 million Africans in 20 nations are desperately short of wood for fuel, and this could double by the year 2000.
The timber projects are a piece of a large effort by UNDP, the World Resources Institute, and the World Bank to ``devise a global strategy to maintain rain forests,'' says Lissner.
Most forest land in Africa belongs to local governments, which grant concessions to logging companies - usually foreign concerns - to cut timber. The UNDP project aims at strengthening the bargaining power of the 13-nation African Timber Organization (ATO), based in Gabon. As a result, says Lissner, the ATO, which promotes Africa's timber industry, will be able to negotiate more favorable concession contracts that will include tougher requirements for replanting logged areas.