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Vested Interests: Industrial logging and carbon in tropical forests

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Vested Interests: Industrial logging and carbon in tropical forests

We practice Sustainable Forest Management,” states Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau on its website. We know that Rimbunan Hijau’s claims to sustainability are nonsense, of course. As if to make the point, the company illustrates its claim with a photograph of a monoculture tree plantation (left).

In a 2006 report, Greenpeace describes Rimbunan Hijau’s operations as “Thirty years of forest plunder” and notes that “Rimbunan Hijau is responsible for many large scale destructive logging operations”. But the fact that even Rimbunan Hijau can claim to be carrying out sustainable forest management illustrates that the term is little more than a fig leaf for industrial logging – business as usual.

Yet at the UN climate negotiations, the term “sustainable forest management” is increasingly being used in the REDD negotiations.

For example, the draft decision that came out of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice at the UN climate negotiations in Bonn (1-12 June 2009) states:

Acknowledging the importance of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries,
[ . . . ]
Recognizing the importance of promoting sustainable management of forests and co-benefits, including biodiversity, that may complement the aims and objectives of national forest programmes and relevant international conventions and agreements,

click to download the report (3.6 MB)

A report by Global Witness, launched in June 2009 during the Bonn negotiations, points out that in fact “Industrial logging under the guise of ‘Sustainable Forest Management (SFM)’ is a major source of carbon emissions, a primary driver of deforestation and threatens to derail the UN process to reduce deforestation.” The report, “Vested Interests: Industrial logging and carbon in tropical forests” documents how reduced impact logging (the most benign form of commercial logging) kills 5-10 non-target trees for every target tree cut, “and releases between 10 and 80 tonnes of carbon per hectare”.

It doesn’t stop there. The roads built through forests by logging companies (which are needed whether they are practising reduced impact logging or forest plunder) makes the forests between 4 and 8 times more likely to be completely deforested than intact forests. Even worse is the fact that the risk of fire is massively increased by logging. “All forms of logging make forests more vulnerable to fire,” notes Global Witness.

During the El Niño events in the late 1990s, 60% of logged forests in Indonesian Borneo went up in smoke compared with 6% of primary forest. In fact, the increase in forest fires caused by logging can be more devastating and release more carbon than the logging operations themselves.

It is not only logging companies that are pushing for the inclusion of sustainable forest management in REDD. One of the main drivers is the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, a group of thirteen organisations, including all the UN organisations involved in the negotiations on forests and climate. Members include the Climate Change Convention Secretariat, the UN Forum on Forests, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Convention on Biodiversity, the International Tropical Timber Organisation and the World Bank.

Global Witness lists a series of key findings and recommendations in the report, including the following:

  • If REDD is to be an effective mitigation tool, funds must not be used to benefit or subsidise industrial logging operations.
  • There is no consensus on the meaning of ‘sustainable forest management’. Many destructive logging practices have taken place under its name.
  • Industrial logging in tropical forests, in all its forms, is not a sustainable option that helps to solve climate change. Rather, it is a major cause of degradation and a precursor to deforestation and conversion to other uses, such as industrial agriculture.
  • The carbon implications of “reduced impact” logging (RIL) should always be assessed against the carbon dynamics of an intact forest, not by comparing it with worst-case destructive logging operations.
  • The assumption that a forest logged selectively will remain a forest is incorrect. Selectively logged forests are, in fact, more likely to be converted to other land use than undisturbed forest.
  • The amount of carbon stored long-term in wood products derived from natural tropical forests is negligible compared with the carbon emissions resulting from the harvest, transport and processing of the wood.
  • Introducing ‘harvested wood products’ into accounting and reporting procedures under the UNFCCC would constitute a methodological nightmare and is best avoided.
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  1. While I agree that the opportunity remains for many industrial logging companies to operate under the guise of sustainable forest management while engaging in unsustainable practices, the author of this article completely avoids the good work of companies that do engage in SFM and Reduced Impact Logging, that is backed up by years of peer-reviewed research (i.e., see Sist in Forest Ecology and Management). The view proposed by the author is akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, and wishing that humanity will all of a sudden abandon its need for wood products. The authors of REDD Monitor do present some good information, however I would appreciate a more balanced view on your webpage.

  2. Jamie

    Can you please show us research indicating what the carbon budgets are in the tropical forests in which ‘SFM’ and ‘Reduced Impact Logging’ is taking place?



  3. Thanks Jamie. I’m afraid you’ve somewhat missed the point of the Global Witness report. The point is not whether humanity needs wood products. The point is whether logging should be subsidised through REDD payments. And the conclusion of the report is that it should not because logging of any sort reduces the amount of carbon stored in the forest and increases the risk that forests will be completely deforested.

    These two bullet points from the report sum up the argument:

      – If REDD is to be an effective mitigation tool, funds must not be used to benefit or subsidise industrial logging operations.

      – The carbon implications of “reduced impact” logging (RIL) should always be assessed against the carbon dynamics of an intact forest, not by comparing it with worst-case destructive logging operations.

    This argument is not changed by the fact that there may be some companies carrying out “sustainable forest management”. In fact, on page 1 of the report, Global Witness uses the example of a logging operation certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to make its point:

    “In concessions in the Amazon and Congo – one certified by the Forest
    Stewardship Council (FSC) and the other often cited as a model of ‘sustainable forest management’ – for every tree harvested 6 – 10 times as many are killed or severely damaged despite practicing ‘reduced impact’ logging (RIL), and up to 10 tonnes of carbon is lost per hectare, most ending up in the atmosphere.”

  4. is anyone pushing for REDD to recognize the need to end industrial logging of old-growth forests entirely? I thought that was a position that was being adopted by the environmental movements not compromised by corporate boards or funding.

  5. Perhaps you’re thinking of this statement that was produced in Bonn in June 2009, under the headline: “Halt Climate Change — Halt Forest destruction — Halt Plantations”. 48 organisations signed on to the statement.

  6. Yes, much more work needs to go into defining Sustainable Forest Management and specifics must be addressed in Copenhagen in order to avoid unsustainable timber operations being incorporated into a REDD mechanism. Many unsustainable systems, ecologically and/or socially, can be labeled SFM if other characteristics are deemed “sustainable”, and proves to be a loophole in other sectors as well, outside of forestry.
    However, excluding the option for forest management as a financial incentive in the UN-REDD mechanism will be a serious mistake. Tropical timber harvesting is not going to stop on its own- the industry is lucrative as well as the alternative land uses, namely agriculture. If forest management is not included, we are going to see less participation from the countries who stand the most to contribute. Conventional logging, as well as illegal logging, will continue without any incentive to change, stop or improve. Additionally, the forest sector increasingly offers employment opportunities and supports both direct and indirect livelihoods for many local communities that stand to benefit from its operations- not to say that this hasn’t been seriously abused in the past, but many positive circumstances exist as well- and are too frequently ignored.
    Putting a UN-REDD system in place that acknowledges the current and future role of timber harvesting in tropical forests in terms of both landscape ecology and socio-economic development will provide much greater incentives to identify what SFM means, on a country-by-country basis, and add support, monitoring and transparency to an industry that the entire world is dependent upon. If governance and land tenure issues are indeed addressed and improved in forested developing countries, which is a very central theme to UN-REDD’s Collaborative Framework, then forestland owners responsible for timber harvesting will be much more interested in maintaining forest cover as economic viability for their company. Without land rights, there’s no incentive to treat the land as a long-term investment. What has more serious impacts- complete land conversion and industrial agriculture by a non-participating country or a monitored timber management program supported by nationally and internationally recognized sustainable guidelines that maintains forest cover, employs local communities, studies impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as modifies its management according to forest-climate change adaptations that are projected to take place?
    If we only compare tropical logging to an intact forest in terms of damage and carbon emissions, we are missing the point. Timber extraction occurs in tropical forests, and at very different intensities and in very different ways depending on region and country. For that very reason, we cannot throw out SFM from potential incentives in the future REDD mechanism. We must include the industry and encourage participation based on improved performance and rigorous scientific research, or UN-REDD will definitely not reach its potential for emissions reductions and larger sustainable development goals of forested countries in the tropics.

  7. Noah

    Are you able to answer my earlier question about what exactly are the carbon budgets of natural untouched forests, compared to forests that have undergone industrial logging (also known as ‘sustainabel forest management’)?

    It seems that you put some very reasonable points here, but what I think we need are the actual figures.

    Another point to bear in mind is that ‘sustainable forest management’ has never actually worked in the tropics. As various studies have shown (and are noted in the Global Witness report), areas undergoing selective logging in both the Amazon and Indonesia are much more likely to subsequently be destroyed completely, usually by fire, to which logging renders them much more susceptible.

    So whatever we might like to think about ‘sustainable forest management’, the reality seems to be somewhat different. The histocial evidence would seem to show that logging should really be seen as a (catalytic) part of the process of deforestation, not of conservation.

    In these terms one would think that logging should be one of the first things that REDD programmes should aim to put an end to. Given that the financial benefits to tropical countries from the logging industry have almost always proven to be paltry (even ignoring the *negative* externalities, such as the spreading of disease, loss of biodiversity, destruction of indigenous cultures etc) it should be quite a cheap thing to ‘compensate’ for with REDD payments, and would be a good investment to prevent future deforestation.


  8. Hi Robin-
    I think you’ve highlighted one of the issues that is leading to both optimism and confusion over Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) as part of a future UN-REDD system. Sustainable forest management, as a general description of land use operations and planning is very different from SFM, which has started to become defined much more along the lines of “the maintenance and enhancement of ecological, social and economic values of the forest for present and future generations.” This is different from industry claiming sustainable forest management techniques, which I agree does happen. This definition of SFM also includes the options of NTFP harvesting- a mainstay for many indigenous cultures and livelihoods. I urge you to look at the Forest Stewardship Council’s Principles and Criteria for a more robust concept of SFM, which is what I am talking about and advocating for inclusion in a UN-REDD mechanism. FSC-certified forest management in many tropical countries (as well as temperate) have some very promising success stories- contrary to you mentioning it has never worked. Success stories and promising case studies are coming out of India. Guyana is also currently realizing successes in SFM, as a high-forested country with a historically low rate of deforestation. I also suggest you reading the Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management produced by the ITTO. It is not an epithet for industrial logging.
    No, I am not able to point you in the direction of research showing carbon budgets between industrially logged and “untouched” forests. If I could, I think I would be at the UN negotiating table! This has been one of the greatest challenges and sources of discussion over how to even start a UN-REDD process- HOW to even set up a system to record this information, the technical skills and infrastructure needed. Remote sensing is just starting to become reliable and efficient for beginning these analyses- so I think the information you want is still unavailable.
    My point is that ignoring forest management as a viable, and actually small component (the majority of emissions from deforestation do not come from the timber industry, but total land conversion for export agricultural products), of a UN-REDD program will alienate countries and regions that should not be alienated. Take a look at the history of complete conservation in developing countries and forest protection- many cases of this have proven just as damaging or worse to indigenous communities, often feeding negative feedback loops on forest biodiversity that you say are only impacted from timber harvesting.
    Robin- familiarize yourself with the enormous range of variety that is often lumped into the term “industrial logging.” These systems differ dramatically sub-nationally, nationally and regionally. Familiarize yourself with various silvicultural prescriptions that are proving VERY effective at preventing fire- such as understory thinning, creating fire buffer zones, and prescribed burning. Familiarize with the drivers of deforestation and how they differ from country to country, brainstorming how sustainable forest management (both for timber and NTFPs) has the potential to sustain livelihoods and maintain biological processes- versus simply conservation. Forestry is an easy target because it is so visible- and yes, there are large problems with many current conventional logging systems. But again, we are NEVER going to stop harvesting timber- nor should we, it is a renewable resource that can be maintained and harvested in accordance with the sustainability of human communities and ecological processes. There is huge room for improvement, and very little research has been done. Read Putz for carbon emissions reductions in systems using RIL- and this is just initial estimates. Incorporating these players is going to be very important- we cannot ignore industry, whether local or global. This can give a chance to set out agreed upon guidelines, definitions, protocols, verification systems and monitoring processes to prevent future unsustainable forestland management and its associated carbon emissions- while maintaining the provision of ecosystem services, support development goals and continue to feed a global market for timber products. Even if a UN-REDD mechanism starts conservatively with its funding towards SFM-related reductions, this will give the industry time to adapt and room to improve where needed, as well as encourage research and case studies to show what works and what doesn’t. We need to address as many drivers of deforestation as possible- and management of forests based on robust and nationally/internationally supported guidelines, according to principles of ecological, social and economic sustainability is a MUCH more long-term and realistic approach than saying find another way to conserve your forests.

  9. Thanks for this, Noah.

    For your information, I am trained as a tropical forester, and am aware of the potential that exists for improved sylvicultural practices to reduce the collateral damage that timber extraction does in rainforests. What I am seeking, though, it any evidence that this makes a signicant difference in terms of the impact of logging on carbon emissions from forest degradation, or that it changes the nature of the process that, historically at least, seems to lead inexorably from selective timber removal to complete deforestation.

    Without this evidence, it strikes me that what you are advocating is really just a matter of ‘faith’!

    Regrettably, for whatever reasons, the Forest Stewardship Council does not seem to have served us well in terms of demonstrating the viability of sustainable tropical forest management. The many example of non-compliance with the FSC’s requirements, especially in relation to tropical logging operations, as shown at, to my mind paint a rather worrying picture – and I am not quite sure what to make of the fact that the FSC itself has not responded to any of these accusations.

    Anyway, I would be interested to know more about the successes that have been made in realising sustainable forest management in Guyana – a country that is also evidently very interested in REDD. Can you say more about this?