UN tries to slow deforestation by boosting African timber industry

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.

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.

However, environmentalists say that any project focused on the timber industry should include specific guidelines for conservation. This one does not.

``Every project should be part of the solution [to deforestation.]'' says Robert Winterbottom of the International Institute for Environment and Development in Washington. ``There's been a history of emphasis on the industrial side without doing enough on the forest management side.''

Within a 32-page document outlining strategies for training local tree graders, increasing private investments in the timber industry, and improving transportation of timber from inland forests to coastal ports, there is a one-line mention of the ``conservation of forest ecosystems.''

The project does, however, call for the wider use of a greater number of tree species.

``In taking out [only a] few trees, a lot of damage is done to the rest of the stand,'' says Peter Hazelwood of the World Resources Institute. ``The process is much more efficient if you take out more varieties so that you can log a smaller area in a less destructive and more sustainable manner.''

Lissner says the UNDP project takes this into account.

Nevertheless, the World Resources Institute recently published a report on the extent to which many current government policies actually encourage deforestation. And Mr. Winterbottom says: ``There's not one country where industrial wood production is coming from sustainably managed [tropical] forest. People don't understand what it takes to regenerate these forests. They're just being cut.''

Lissner concedes that he knows of no instances anywhere in the world where such forests are logged and sustainably managed.

Deforestation and poverty

``If you want to draw a map of absolute poverty in Africa, you will find it coincides with the areas that have been deforested,'' says Chuck Lankester, principal technical advisor to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Environmentalists and forestry experts decry the rapid loss of the world's tropical forests. On a worldwide scale, say many experts, this destruction exacerbates the trend toward global warming. And in developing countries, depletion of forests results in declining living standards.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, most natural forests have long since been cut down for timber, fuel wood, and to clear land. Some areas of Western and Central Africa, however, are still heavily forested. But the UNDP estimates that at current rates of logging, Nigeria and Ivory Coast will have no forests left by the year 2000. A UNDP report on African forests lists some of the negative effects of deforestation:

Since 1900 about 150 million hectares of African forests have become abandoned, submarginal land.

As forests disappear, the rural poor divert more income and time toward obtaining fuel wood.

When fuel wood is no longer available, animal waste is burned for fuel instead of being used for fertilizer.

Nutrition declines as people can no longer find, or afford, fuelwood for cooking and for boiling unclean water.

Dams and irrigation systems silt up as soil erodes. Ten African nations now have severe watershed problems.

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