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At a store near you: ecofriendly lumber

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2005


José Choc touches a burning branch to the ground and lights the dry brush. His 10-year-old son, Martín, follows suit, skipping out of the way of the advancing fire. Ten minutes later, an area the size of four football fields is in flames, adding a crackling heat to the scorching hot afternoon.

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Mr. Choc has chopped down about three acres of mahogany trees here and sold the wood - illegally - to loggers. Now he's burning the area so that he can farm it. The fire will burn for the rest of the day, covering the Laguna del Tigre National Park with smoke. Here in the Maya Biosphere Reserve - an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park - breaking the law is a fact of life.

But José Ramon Carrera, who has spent the past 20 years protecting the forest here, says there is a way to get people like Mr. Choc to stop destroying the forest. The answer: certified lumber. It's modeled after fair-trade coffee, where growers are paid above market price for following sustainable farming practices. And it's catching on: everyone from small US furnituremakers to the Home Depot - even Gibson Guitar Corp., which is set to move to 100 percent certified wood this month - are increasingly bringing ecofriendly lumber to stores near you. [Editor's note: The original version referred to certified "fair trade" lumber, but "Fair Trade Certified" is a term trademarked by TransFair USA, which has certified coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, and fruit - but not lumber - as fairly traded.]

"I thought, at first, that forests should not be touched," says Mr. Carrera, regional coordinator for the forestry division of the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit based in New York, who grew up here. "We used to confiscate wood, put people in jail, haul them away - but the forest would still just keep getting smaller and smaller." Now, he realizes, "The only way to conserve here, it turns out, is to make it profitable."

And, slowly, the profits are coming. In the past three months, international wood brokers have placed orders here for more than 1.5 million board feet, valued at $3 million - the largest order since certification began seven years ago. It may be small - worldwide trade in forest products totaled $160 billion last year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization - but conservationists hope it represents things to come.

Guatemala's National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), in cooperation with the Rainforest Alliance and other NGOs, has given 12 communities living in designated "multipurpose areas" within the biosphere concessions of about 125,000 to 200,000 acres each.

These communities are charged with harvesting the forest in a sustainable manner: dividing the land into productive sections and logging only a few areas - of certain age and species - at a time each year.