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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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Pulp and paper



Recent news on logging [all logging news]



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Amazon Rainforest Calendar


China tries out logging ban in northeastern province
(01/28/2015) China's Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia to its north and east, contains 18.5 million hectares of state forest - more natural forest than any other province in the country. However, since the mid-twentieth century, Heilongjiang has had over 600 million cubic meters of timber extracted from its woodlands. Now, China is trying out a complete ban on commercial logging in the province's state-owned forests.


China’s recent forest tenure reforms threaten panda habitat
(01/27/2015) Since the 1950s, plantations and second-growth forests in China have been locally managed by village communities as collective forests, which today account for 58 percent of China's forestland. Many of these collective forests lie within mountainous rural areas, some of which are also home to the 1,600 or so wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) that survive today.


Deforestation may be ramping up in Papua, West Papua
(01/27/2015) Despite being covered in commodity concessions and becoming a focal point for the Indonesian government’s palm oil development in the country’s eastern half, the provinces of Papua and West Papua have, rather mysteriously, recorded very low deforestation rates compared to the rest of the archipelago. However, emerging data, reports, and photos suggest the region's forest loss may be escalating.


Scientists call on Obama to stop logging in old growth forests
(01/27/2015) Seven conservation societies have joined a campaign to push the Obama administration to end old-growth forest logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.


Rogue cop missing from jail
(01/27/2015) An Indonesian police official busted for illegal logging in West Papua has been missing from jail for nearly a year after being granted permission to seek medication treatment, reports the The Jakarta Post.


155 Chinese nationals arrested for illegal logging in Myanmar
(01/27/2015) 155 Chinese citizens have been arrested in Myanmar for illegal logging, reports Agence France-Presse.


Half of Borneo's mammals could lose a third of their habitat by 2080
(01/22/2015) Borneo consistently makes the list of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots” – areas full of a wide variety of forms of life found nowhere else, but which are also under threat. To better understand the hazards, a study published today in the journal Current Biology examines the effects of climate change and deforestation in the coming decades on mammals living on the island.


Indonesia's moratorium not enough to achieve emissions reduction target
(01/20/2015) When Indonesia's former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a moratorium in May 2012 on the issuance of new permits for logging in primary forests and on peat lands, it was widely hailed as an important, albeit far too limited, step in clamping down on the country's levels of deforestation.


High deforestation rates in Malaysian states hit by flooding
(01/19/2015) Five states hard hit by flooding last month in Malaysia had high rates of forest loss in recent years, bolstering assertions that environmental degradation may have worsened the disaster. According to satellite data from researchers led by the University of Maryland's Matt Hansen and displayed on Global Forest Watch, the states of Johor, Kelantan, Pahang, Perak, and Terengganu each lost more than 10 percent of their forest cover between 2001 and 2012. Loss was greatest in areas with dense tree cover.


Facing legacy of deforestation and corruption, Sarawak may cease granting new logging concessions
(01/18/2015) Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem says his government may stop granting new logging concessions, reports Malaysian state media.


Sulawesi village seeks protection for sacred forest threatened by development
(01/16/2015) Home to some 400 fishermen, Manurung village appears unremarkable at first glance: quiet houses along a winding river lined with boats. However, behind the village lies something remarkable: a tract of old-growth forest nearly untouched by human exploitation. Pensimoni Hill stands as a rare outpost of towering trees rising above freshwater springs that provide clean water and life for the villages below.


Half of Indonesia's deforestation occurs outside concession areas
(01/06/2015) Roughly half of Indonesia's natural forest loss occurs outside officially designated concession areas, concludes a new assessment that also finds higher deforestation rates in places with worse forest governance scores. The report, released last month by Forest Watch Indonesia, is based on analysis of satellite data spanning the archipelago. Unlike assessments by the Ministry of Forestry, the data includes areas outside the 'forest estate'.


Rainforests: 10 things to watch in 2015
(01/02/2015) 2014 was a landmark year for tropical rainforests, with dozens of major companies committing to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, the launch of new platforms for monitoring forests, and sharp drop in clearing in the Brazilian Amazon, among other big developments. Here's a quick look ahead at what might be in store for tropical forests in 2015.


2014: the year in rainforests
(12/30/2014) 2014 could be classified as 'The Year of the Zero Deforestation Commitment'. During 2014, nearly two dozen major companies, ranging from palm oil producers to fast food chains to toothpaste makers, established policies to exclude palm oil sourced at the expense of rainforests and peatlands.


Hunting is a greater threat than logging for most wildlife in Borneo
(12/16/2014) Persistence is the key factor in the two most common human stressors on tropical wildlife. In Malaysian Borneo, hunting continually diminishes wildlife populations, whereas the negative impacts from selective logging are more transient, according to a recent study in Conservation Biology.






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

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