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Clear-cutting in Peru
Clear-cutting in Peru near a gold mine. (Photo by R. Butler)

RAINFOREST LOGGING

By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated July 27, 2012

Logging is one of the most prominent and best-known forms of rainforest degradation and destruction. Despite improved logging techniques and greater international awareness and concern for the rainforests, unsustainable logging of tropical rainforests continues—much of it practiced illegally by criminal syndicates.

In the late 1990s, after depleting much of their own timber stocks, Asian logging companies began aggressively moving into rainforest areas including northeastern South America (Guyana, Suriname); the Brazilian Amazon; the Congo Basin of Central Africa; the South Pacific, particularly the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea; and Central America. Chinese timber firms have been particularly active during that period and the early 2000s, after the government banned domestic logging in much of the country following catastrophic flooding in 1998. With a construction boom fueling demand for wood, China has been linked to logging in Africa, the Amazon, Burma, and Indonesia. However due to depletion of timber stocks, overseas timber operations in the 2000s and 2010s were increasingly replaced by plantation forestry, both timber and oil palm plantations.

Typical logging operations are quite damaging to the rainforest ecosystem. Problems stem from the nature of limited-term timber concessions, which encourage short-term resource depletion, and poor forest planning and management. Corruption is rife in many tropical timber-producing countries, making existing forestry laws nearly unenforceable, while lack of transparency in commercial transactions means that corrupt officials can grant concessions to cronies without regard for the environment or consideration of local people. The structure of the rainforest itself—where no one species dominates and attractive timber trees are widely dispersed—means that it can simply be more profitable to clear- cut forest. Even without clear-cutting, the construction of logging roads to reach forest resources is destructive in the its own right and encourages settlement of previously inaccessible forest lands by speculators, land developers, and poor farmers. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund show that areas that have been selectively logged are eight times more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of the access granted by logging roads. Research has found a high correlation between the presence of logging roads and consumption of "bushmeat"—wild animals hunted as food.

Logging roads aside, selective logging itself—where only one or two valuable tree species are harvested from an area—can take a heavy toll on primary tropical forests. A late 2005 study conducted by scientists from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University determined that "selective logging" creates twice as much damage as is detected by satellites while resulting in 25 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than previously believed.

Selective logging—as usually practiced—degrades forest because the felling of a single large tree can bring down dozens of surrounding trees which are linked to the target tree by vines and lianas. The thinning of the protective canopy exposes the forest to increased sunlight and drying winds that can kill symbiotic soil organisms essential for decomposition and nutrient-fixing, while drying leaf litter and increasing the forest's vulnerability to fire. Further, the use of tractors for removing trees tears up the soil and increases erosion. Selective logging has been found to reduce global biodiversity by destroying habitat for primary forest species.

These tropical logging operations widely fail to safeguard timber stocks for future harvests and fail to protect logged-over forest from fire, biodiversity loss, over-hunting, and subsequent conversion for agriculture or pasture. But the damage caused by clear-cutters is even worse. Operators who do not practice selective logging may instead simply burn a forest tract after valuable trees have been removed.

Poor economics



Developing countries often see only a fraction of the money generated legal logging operations, and even less from illegal logging, which, according to World Bank estimates, costs governments about US$5 billion in lost revenues annually and hits national economies for another US$10 billion per year. Logging firms can often find or create loopholes in legislation that allow them to pay very little for concessions while sometimes avoiding excise taxes on the logs they remove. For example, a 1994 logging agreement in Suriname granted 25 percent of Suriname's land area (7.5 million acres or 3 million hectares) at less than $35 an acre, while lacking provisions to safeguard the environment, reforest logged areas, or even allow the country to adequately monitor logging activities. Estimates at the time from the U.S. Forestry Service and Harvard Law School projected that while loggers would earn some US$28 million annually, the country would only see US$2 million. That logging contract was subsequently canceled due, in part, to public outcry.

Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, the Cambodian government was losing so much revenue from its failure to collect taxes on timber that the IMF canceled a $120 million loan and the World Bank suspended direct aid to the government until the corruption in the forestry sector was resolved. Apparently these actions were not enough to stem forest loss: between 2000 and 2005, Cambodia lost nearly 30 percent of its primary forest cover. In Nigeria, which suffered the highest rate of primary forest loss (55.7 percent) in the first half of this decade, WEMPCO, a Hong Kong logging firm, in the 1990s reportedly paid US$28 to the government for each mahogany tree while reselling the wood at US$800 per cubic meter, roughly US$2,900 per tree.

Tropical countries also lose potential revenue by exporting logs before processing, when wood has its lowest value. Several countries, including Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, and Burma, in the 1990s banned raw log exports in an effort to increase revenue for local operators and the government, but raw logs are still commonly smuggled by crime syndicates in several countries.

"Sustainable logging"



Sustainable forestry is possible, but according to the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), more than 90 percent of tropical forests are managed poorly or not at all. Several techniques like strip logging and reduced impact logging (See Ch 10: Solutions: "sustainable logging") show potential, but do little good if they are not adopted. Further, studies have show that once logged, forest has a much higher likelihood of eventual deforestation due to road construction, increased risk of fire, and over-extraction of valuable species.

Rainforest logging operations are also particularly subject to "greenwashing" where a firm claims to be committed to sustainable harvesting techniques but in practice is failing to implement the most basic safeguards.


+ More information on rainforest logging


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Review questions:

  • Why can selective logging be destructive in the rainforest?
  • What is the hunting of wild animals for food called?
  • What is greenwash?

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Top scientists raise concerns over commercial logging on Woodlark Island
(10/21/2014) A number of the world's top conservation scientists have raised concerns about plans for commercial logging on Woodlark Island, a hugely biodiverse rainforest island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The scientists, with the Alliance of Leading Environmental Scientists and Thinkers (ALERT), warn that commercial logging on the island could imperil the island's stunning local species and its indigenous people.


'River wolves' recover in Peruvian park, but still remain threatened inside and out (photos)
(10/14/2014) Lobo de río, or river wolf, is the very evocative Spanish name for one of the Amazon's most spectacular mammals: the giant river otter. This highly intelligent, deeply social, and simply charming freshwater predator almost vanished entirely due to a relentless fur trade in the 20th Century. But decades after the trade in giant river otter pelts was outlawed, the species is making a comeback.


Another environmental journalist killed in Cambodia
(10/14/2014) Another Cambodian journalist has been gunned down while investigating illegal logging by state officials.


Forest restoration commitments: driven by science or politics?
(10/10/2014) During September's UN Climate Summit, three African nations were recognized for their commitments to restore collectively millions of hectares of forest. But several organizations declined invitations to sign the pact because they say it fails to lay out “concrete action” to fight climate change, and some experts in the field worry that the announcements are little more than political posturing.


'A remarkable conservation achievement': Ecuador reserve expands as forest disappears
(10/09/2014) A strip of rainforest running along the northwestern Ecuadorian coast and up through Colombia is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Yet, less than 10 percent of Ecuador’s portion remains intact, with more forest lost every year to human development. But a little more has been saved for now, with 500 hectares added to an area reserve.


Leaders pledge to end deforestation by 2030
(09/24/2014) Dozens of companies, non-profit organizations, and governments pledged to work together to halve forest loss by 2020 and end it altogether by 2030. If implemented, the commitment could reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4.5-8.8 billion tons annually, equivalent to removing a billion cars from the world's roads.


Extinction island? Plans to log half an island could endanger over 40 species
(09/22/2014) Woodlark Island is a rare place on the planet today. This small island off the coast Papua New Guinea is still covered in rich tropical forest, an ecosystem shared for thousands of years between tribal peoples and a plethora of species, including at least 42 found no-where else. Yet, like many such wildernesses, Woodlark Island is now facing major changes: not the least of them is a plan to log half of the island.


Legislation protecting Indonesia's indigenous communities is not good enough, says advocacy group
(09/18/2014) Approaching final legalization, an advocacy group for Indonesia’s indigenous communities has asked to postpone passing a bill granting protections to indigenous people, stating some demands still need to be addressed.


'The green Amazon is red with indigenous blood': authorities pull bodies from river that may have belonged to slain leaders
(09/17/2014) Peruvian authorities have pulled more human remains from a remote river in the Amazon, which may belong to one of the four murdered Ashaninka natives killed on September 1st. It is believed the four Ashaninka men, including renowned leader Edwin Chota Valera, were assassinated for speaking up against illegal logging on their traditional lands.


From 'production' forests to protected forests, groups work to save Sumatran orangutan habitat. But will it be enough?
(09/16/2014) The orangutan is native exclusively to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra — two regions that have seen the brunt of Indonesia's recent forest destruction due primarily to logging and plantation development. Although there are anywhere from 45,000 to 69,000 Bornean orangutans remaining in the wild, the Sumatran species numbers only about 7,300 according to a 2004 survey, and is dwindling further every year.


FSC passes motion for greater protection of primary forests
(09/12/2014) The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has passed a motion to increase protection of old-growth forests.


FSC meeting weighs old-growth forest protection, smallholder participation
(09/11/2014) The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a body that sets social and environmental certification criteria for forestry products, is weighing measures that could step up protection for old-growth forests and make it easier for indigenous people and traditional forest communities to qualify for certification. The measures are set for a vote this week at the body's General Assembly, which is held every three years to establish and revise criteria that underpin the standard.


4 Ashaninka tribesmen killed by loggers in Peru
(09/08/2014) One of those killed was Edwin Chota, the leader of the Alto Tamaya-Saweto indigenous community who won fame for fighting illegal loggers. As such, Chota was a top target for assassination, according to a conservationist familiar with the situation.


Canada, Russia, Brazil lead world in old-growth forest loss
(09/05/2014) Every day, the world loses about 50,000 hectares of forest to agricultural clearing, road development, and other human activities, constricting true wilderness into smaller and smaller areas – along with the species that inhabit them. New analysis and maps released this week show these last vestiges are disappearing at a quick pace, with more than 104 million hectares degraded from 2000 to 2013.


How Islam could help save Aceh's forests
(09/05/2014) Aceh, Indonesia has found a new ally in the struggle to protect the province's remaining natural forests: Sharia law.






Other pages in this section:

A World Imperilled
Threats from Humankind
Economic Restructuring
Logging
Fires
Commercial Agriculture
Hydro, Pollution, Hunting
Debt
Consumption, Conclusion
- - - - -
References
References
References
References
References
Natural forces
Subsistence Activities
Oil Extraction
Mining
War
Cattle Pasture
Fuelwood, Roads, Climate
Population & Poverty

- - - - -
Kids version of this section
- Why are rainforests disappearing?
- Logging
- Agriculture
- Cattle
- Roads
- Poverty


Selection of information sources

  • A brief history of the international timber industry is provided in Brookfield, H., Potter, L., and Byron, Y., In Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995.
  • The Sarawak Campaign Committee in "Japan's Tropical Timber Imports in 1994 and 1995," Mori no Koe Issue #8, 4-25-96, provides statistics for Japanese tropical hardwood log imports.
  • The sudden increase in logging in new markets by multinational firms was covered extensively by the popular media in the mid- to late-nineties including Mittermier, R., "Economic Crisis in Suriname threatens Ecological Eden," Christian Science Monitor, 4/19/95; Friedland, J. and Pura, R., "Log Heaven: Trouble at Home, Asian Timber Firms set Sights on the Amazon," Wall Street Journal, 11/11/96; Barry, G., "Asian Loggers Move into Heart of Amazon Rainforest," BIOD Campaign News, 3/10/97; and Ito, T.M. and Loftus, M., "Cutting and Dealing," U.S. News and World Report, 10-Mar-1997.
  • The failure of many tropical logging operations to safeguard timber stocks for future harvests and to protect logged-over forest from destruction is explored by Frumhoff, P.C. in "The elusive prospect of sustainable forestry," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol 13, issue 4 (166-167) 1-April-1998; by EDF in "Making the Label Stick," The Environmental Defense Fund, 1997; and by Johns, A.G. in Timber Production and Biodiversity Conservation in Tropical Rain Forests, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • S. Rosse gives his account of an illegal logging network in "Thai Forestry Rangers at Work," The Christian Science Monitor, 8/2/93. The illegal timber trade in this region is further documented in The Bangkok Post, "Log Poaching," 11/7/97; Skehan, C., "Forest Carnage," Sydney Morning Herald. 2/28/98; Skehan, C., "Army Denies Involvement in Logging Scandal" Sydney Morning Herald. 2/26/98; Wannabovorn, S., "Thai Opposition Plans Censure Motion Against Government," Reuters, 2/25/98; Agence France-Presse (AFP) "Cambodia Could Soon Lose Forests to Loggers: Green Group," 12/15/97; Baker, M., "Cambodia-Military Involved in Illegal Logging," Sydney Morning Herald, 1/24/97; and Pruzin, D., "Politics of Timber-Loggers Use Loophole to Decimate Cambodia's Disappearing Forest," Christian Science Monitor, 5/1/97.
  • Suksai, S. and Hutasingh, O. ("Working elephants fed with amphetamine-laced bananas" Bankok Post, 6/15/97) report that elephants used for illegal logging were fed amphetamines to increase their productivity.
  • Bawa, K.S. and Seidler, R. ("Natural Forest Management and Conservation of Biodiversity in Tropical Forests." Conservation Biology Vol. 12 No. 1 (46-55), Feb 1998) cite studies that suggest logging to any degree, even if it is highly selective, reduces global biodiversity.
  • McRae, M discusses the impact of high interest rates on logging in "Is 'Good Wood' Bad for Forests?" Science Vol. 275 (1868-1869), March 1997.
  • K. Horta provides a description of a logging operation in the Congo in "Why I was Banned from a Congo Rainforest," Christian Science Monitor, 11/25/96.
  • J.N. Abramovitz reviews the low logging concession fees in Suriname and Belize in "Taking a Stand: Cultivating a New Relationship with the World's Forests," Worldwatch Institute 1998.
  • R. Mittermier ("Economic Crisis in Suriname threatens Ecological Eden," Christian Science Monitor, 4/19/95) mentions estimates from the US Forestry Service and Harvard Law School that project revenues for Suriname from a recent logging agreement.
  • The fact that most tropical timber is harvested for domestic consumption - and not export - is reviewed in Atkin, J., "Tropical timber," Economist, 13 February 8, 1993 and Vincent, J. R., "The tropical timber trade and sustainable development," Science 256 (16511655), 1992. Vincent 1992 also notes that international trade accounts for a diminishing share of tropical timber consumption.
  • Dudley, N., Jeanrenaud, J., and Sullivan, F. ("The Timber Trade and Global Forest Loss." Ambio Vol. 27, No. 3, May 1998) notes that most analyses concentrate on deforestation and overlook forest degradation. They also cite a recent finding of the World Wildlife Fund that logging has become the primary cause of forest loss (road construction for logging activities included) today and suggest most commentators underestimate importance of industrial activities on deforestation.
  • Information on mahogany logging is provided by the Rainforest Action Network (1992-1997).
  • F.S. Kolma, ("FIA refuses to pay K10 royalty," The National (PNG), 11-Jul 1996) reports on the government's failure to enforce an excise tax on timber.
  • L. Weiss ("Nigerians Risk All Their Forests," NGO Coalition for the Environment (NGOCE), Earth Island Journal, 1996) notes the tremendous profit margins of a Hong Kong logging firm in Nigeria on African mahogany trees.
  • Vincent, J.R. and Gillis, M. ("Deforestation and Forest Land Use: A Comment," The World Bank Research Observer, vol. 13, no. 1 (133-140), Feb. 1998) argue that rates of deforestation can be above optimal levels due to policy distortions.
  • G. Barry identifies a study by the International Tropical Timber Organization (a UN body), found that none of 34 sites in the Para state of Brazil had met ITTO harvesting requirements Brazil has agreed to implement by the year 2000 ("Asian Loggers Move into Heart of Amazon Rainforest," BIOD Campaign News, 3/10/97).
  • The impact of the 1997-1998 economic recession in Asia on logging operations is presented in ITTO literature (1998-1999) and Vulum, S., "Logging in PNG: The axe falls," Pacific Island Monthly (Fiji), March 1998.
  • The use of Indonesia's reforestation fund for alternative projects such as propping up a failing car plant is examined by Richardson, M., "Indonesian Crisis Prompts Fears of New Smoke Pollution," International Herald Tribune, 2/13/98.





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    Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2013

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated from mongabay.com operations (server, data transfer, travel) are mitigated through an association with Anthrotect,
    an organization working with Afro-indigenous and Embera communities to protect forests in Colombia's Darien region.
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    "Rainforest" is used interchangeably with "rain forest" on this site. "Jungle" is generally not used.