At a store near you: ecofriendly lumber

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.

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.

The wood the community harvests is monitored and then certified by the Rainforest Alliance's independent auditing agency called SmartWood. All told, more than 32 million acres in the Americas, Europe, and Asia have been certified by SmartWood, the first such program accredited by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), based in Bonn, Germany. In Central America, says Carrera, Guatemala is a model. Here, 1.1 million acres have been certified; in Nicaragua, by comparison, only 37,000 acres have been certified to date. Since FSC's inception in 1993, more than 115 million acres have been certified worldwide, about 1 percent of all forests.

CONAP estimates that 40 percent of the forest here has already been lost, but where the program has been implemented that number falls to a mere 1 percent.

Meanwhile, of the 90,000 people who live in the biosphere, the majority of whom live below the poverty line, 6,110 people are registered in the concessions program. Carrera says people involved in the concessions earn, on average, at least $2,400 a year, double what those who sell wood illegally make.

These days, everything from crown molding to floorboards, decking to wheelbarrow handles - even Gibson guitars - is being made from certified lumber.

Thomas Wilson, owner of International Specialties, a wood import company based in Germantown, Tenn., started working with communities in the Biosphere just this year, and hopes to buy as much as 200,000 board feet of certified wood in coming months - but, he worries that doing good is not always profitable.

"I have been in this industry for more than 30 years, and I have not seen an enormous change in as far as buyer awareness of the significance and importance of certified wood," he says.

Even those who are concerned with the sustainability of logging are not willing to pay a large premium for certified wood, he says, which becomes a problem for importers like him. He believes in supporting the industry, but is not sure it is as profitable as some nonprofit organizations lead communities to believe.

"Many certified producers, and communities, are expecting to get 'green premium,' but even those who want to do good, want to do it on the cheap," he says.

Jason Benford, director of Earthsource Forest Products, based in Oakland, Calif., is more optimistic about demand of certified wood catching on. The first company who started buying from communities here in 1998, he today provides some 300,000 board-feet a year of wood, both mahogany and other lesser-known species, to interior designers, furniture makers and some landscape architects every year. "There is huge, and growing demand," he says. "I would parallel this with fair-trade coffee. It's a huge movement," he says, adding, "relatively."

David Dudenhoefer, communications director for Rainforest Alliance, says about 1 to 2 percent of wood sold in the US today is certified. "Unfortunately it's a tiny fraction of the industry," he says. "But our goal is to make this grow every year, which is happening."

It's lunchtime, and Martin Choc, sweat pouring down his face, heads home for a nap. In five days, he will go out to the fields again with his father to start the planting. He likes "all this burning," he says, but adds, "it's better not to burn everything. Just a patch." A small victory, environmentalists believe, but here, one to be celebrated Friday, Earth Day.

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