'Good wood' labeling: Can it save Asia's tropical forests?

The world's three biggest buyers of lumber - Home Depot, Lowe's, and IKEA - vow to buy 'green.'

The next time you're in a Home Depot or Lowe's, stroll down the lumber aisles. Check out that $26 sheet of lauan plywood or the $22 hardwood doors.

You're probably looking at "stolen" goods.

"Lauan" is the trade name for hardwood milled from the rainforest trees that grow in Indonesia and Malaysia. It accounts for about 80 percent of all tropical timber sold in the US. And, according to a not-yet-published report from the World Wildlife Fund, an estimated 7 out of every 10 trees cut down in Indonesia are from an illegal or uncontrolled harvest.

In short, consumers in the US are unwittingly contributing to the destruction of Indonesia's tropical forests. At current rates of deforestation, that means some of the most biologically diverse rainforests on earth will be gone in just four years.

But a "good wood" certification effort is just getting started, offering hope by laying bare the connection between the chainsaw gangs in Southeast Asia and the wood on store shelves.

The goal is to create a market for eco-friendly timber by riding the same wave of environmental consciousness that is starting to build markets for "fair trade" coffee, bananas, and cocoa.

Certification systems have been set up to review which forests are being the most responsibly logged, and to reward their owners with higher prices and more customers.

To its boosters, forest certification could be the rainforests' salvation. "Market demand can change forest practices,'' says Rod Taylor, an ecologist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Asia.

A coalition of environmentalists and timber executives called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is actively testing that theory. The Oaxaca, Mexico-based group's voluntary certification program is the most rigorous in the world - and the only one endorsed by the WWF.

The idea is to inform consumers about where wood comes from and at what environmental cost.

That's an almost revolutionary step for an industry that has traditionally focused on a wood's strength or color, not on its place of origin.

The US market for Southeast Asian timber was first developed 40 years ago by the Philippines, with the timber marketed as lauan or Philippines Mahogany, a trade name created by the US Forest Service to help Filipino logging companies sell their wood.

Today, there's almost no commercial logging in the Philippines. "There is no forest left in the Philippines, and Indonesia is going down the same road, just 15 years later,'' says Lisa Curran, a Yale University ecologist who is studying the impact of logging in Indonesia.

"This is the most unregulated industry on the planet,'' says Mike Roselle at Greenpeace in Washington. "You buy a $10 bottle of wine from Chile, and you can pinpoint the winery owner and when his grandfather founded it. You buy a $200 roof beam, and it's a mystery.''

If Indonesia's tropical rainforests are to be saved, say environmentalists, the mystery has to be taken out of the business. In the past decade, according to the World Bank, the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has almost doubled, from 2.47 million to 4.2 million acres per year.

That kind of volume comes with an ecological pricetag. Over the past 10 years, the world's orangutan population has been cut in half, and the Sumatran tiger has edged closer to extinction. Millions of Indonesians now face more flooding, wildfires, and mudslides as a result of denuding forests.

And logging is accelerating. Each day, Indonesia's rainforests shudder as 400-year-old giants thump to ground, even in national parks and protected lands. "We have to find a way to pay for these global environmental commons before they're gone,'' says Mr. Taylor, who says sustainable forestry practices are the only hope of slowing the onslaught, since logging bans seem to just encourage smuggling.

"You try to smuggle a parrot or a snake into this country, you'd be hunted down. But you smuggle the tree that the parrot or the snake lived in, you're a respectable businessman,'' says Greenpeace's Mr. Roselle.

He isn't exactly the FSC's biggest booster. Greenpeace wants logging in all the world's old-growth forests to be banned, and developed world restrictions placed on tropical-wood imports. Still, in the absence of legislation, he says certification is worth a try.

Certification was put on the map in 1998 and 1999, when activists picketed 150 Home Depot outlets, occasionally rappelling from the roofs of the megastores and chaining themselves to piles of old-growth wood.

In August 1999, Home Depot President and CEO Arthur Blank promised to eliminate wood sales from environmentally endangered areas and to give preference to certified wood by the end of 2002. Home Depot is the world's largest lumber retailer, and 2000 sales were $45 billion, or about a third of Indonesia's gross domestic product. As such, it sets the industry standard.

"It was incredible,'' says Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, a Brooklyn, New York-based environmental group - and who helped run the campaign. Within a year, the world's second- and third-largest buyers of lumber - Lowes Companies Inc. and IKEA (the furniture retailer) - had signed up, too.

"We're serious,'' says Suzanne Apple, a Home Depot vice president for community and environmental affairs. "We're working with suppliers to make sure there are alternatives if there isn't enough certified wood by the end of next year.''

It's hard to get certified

The growing preference for certified suppliers has caught the attention of timber companies in Indonesia, including Inhutani I, an Indonesian government logging company that makes moldings, doors, and window frames for the US, Australian, and European markets.

But the company's experience with certification is a case study both in the potential good certification can do and in the shortcomings that may ultimately undermine the movement.

For the past 18 months, Irsal Yasmin, the development director for Inhutani, has been fighting to certify a 500-square-mile forest the company logs in East Kalimantan province. Kalimantan is the name for Indonesia's three-quarters of Borneo, an island it shares with Malaysia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

"For us, this is an issue of global competition,'' says Dr. Irsal. "We could lose customers if we don't get certified.''

By all accounts, Inhutani's practices are among the best in Indonesia, and it has fulfilled most of the FSC criteria, including promising to spare some of the biggest trees. But two years ago, wildcat loggers began to stream through Inhutani's forest, cutting trees earmarked for survival. Though Inhutani has complained to local officials, the logging has continued. Some executives privately allege that the loggers have ties to the local police and government. As a result, "they tell us we may not get certified,'' says Irsal. "It's something beyond our control."

It's a problem that's hitting almost all of Indonesia's legitimate timber operations, with companies complaining that the illegal loggers turn violent if they're opposed. In some places, concession owners have taken to blowing up bridges and dumping loads of rocks on their access roads to keep the illegal loggers out.

"The situation is overwhelming the best efforts of good people,'' says Graham Tyrie, a forester working on a European Union project to help Inhutani improve its forest management. "It's depressing.''

A stop-gap step?

Certification has met with some success in North America and Europe, where environmental groups are more effective and forests are easier to monitor. In tropical countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, though, the forests are remote and often bedeviled by communal conflicts and mismanagement. As a result, only about 17,000 square miles of tropical forest has been certified by FSC-accredited groups.

But Indonesia alone loses more than 17,000 square miles of rainforest a year, and the global annual deforestation rate is estimated to be about five times that.

Some environmentalists say that certification is a stop-gap measure. "Something that even the NGO's don't want to accept is that there has to be a dramatic cut in consumption,'' says Mr. Keating. Otherwise, he says, "demand will simply bulldoze over certification.''

Time is running short, if the supply of certified wood is going to meet demand. While about 200 patches of global forest have already been certified, they represent a tiny fraction of world demand. "If Home Depot came on board tomorrow, they'd exhaust the global supply of certified wood in about a day," says the WWF's Taylor.

Rainforest Relief's Keating says his big worry now is that the FSC and buyers are going to fudge on their commitments when confronted with the reality that there's not enough wood. "There's been this rush to certify, but they're going to have to water down their standards if they're going to meet demand.''

For Keating, the euphoria of the 1999 success is wearing off. He's begun to doubt Home Depot's ability to meet its commitment. "This is so big, we're willing to wait,'' he says. "But we may end up having to start another campaign.''

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