Sign Up

Where Have All the Forests Gone?

Are strengthened restrictions on logging enough to combat global deforestation?

August 26, 2002

Are strengthened restrictions on logging enough to combat global deforestation?

The massive flooding of China’s Yangtze River in 1998 was linked to the removal of 85% of the upper river basin’s original tree cover. That one catastrophe propelled China to issue a ban on logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers — and to begin a reforestation campaign.

China consumes nearly 280 million cubic meters of timber a year, but domestic supply currently provides only 142 million cubic meters. As production shrinks, China is turning to imports and illegal logging to make up for the shortfall.

The International Tropical Timber Organization forecasts that within the next few years China will become the world’s largest log importer — edging out the United States and eclipsing Japan. Japan's massive imports have already destroyed many of the rainforests of the Philippines and much of Borneo.

57% of the logs brought into China originate in Russia. There, poor law enforcement, corruption and the abandonment of local timber-processing plants have led people to cut trees illegally for companies that send raw materials to China for processing. At least one-fifth of Russia’s timber harvest is taken illegally or drastically violates existing legislation.

To China’s south, Burma (Myanmar) holds about half of mainland Southeast Asia’s forests. These contain a variety of tropical hardwood species that are increasingly drawing interest from China.

On paper, Burma supplies less than 10 percent of China’s log imports. But industry workers say the numbers must be at least twice as high.

Burmese log exports to China are growing much faster than the trees — many of which are hundreds of years old and cannot be replaced. In 1949, tropical forests covered 21% of the country’s land area — but now less than 7% of Burma is forested.

In neighboring Laos, where the volume of illegal logging is the equivalent of at least one sixth of the legal harvest, the army openly cuts forests. Now less than 40% of the country is forested, down from 70% in 1940.

In Cambodia, over 70% of the timber export volume consists of unreported logs. And Vietnam could lose all substantial forest cover by 2020 if the current rate of deforestation continues.

As the growing Asian timber market has exhausted supplies over much of the continent, wood imports to Asia from Africa have steadily increased. From 1993 to 1999, Europe was the main importer, taking 40% of central African logs. But since 1996, rising demand from Asia has made that region the number one importer of African timber.

Forest products are the second-largest export for both Cameroon and Gabon, generating about 20% and 13% of revenues, respective by export. Between 1990 and 1995, the share of Cameroonian logs going to Asia soared from 7% to 50%.

Unfortunately, only half the logging companies in Cameroon are licensed. And among these companies, violations such as felling trees smaller than the legal size and cutting outside concession boundaries are common.

These examples cover only a portion of the global timber market. Uncontrolled deforestation abounds in other countries. In Brazil, with the world’s highest deforestation rate, an estimated 80% of logging is illegal.

Mexico is losing over 1 million hectares each year. And in Ethiopia, forest cover has plummeted from around 40 million hectares to 2.7 million in just 40 years — only half of which is natural forest. Rarely, though, is deforestation purely a local issue.

The world’s eight largest industrial countries plus the rest of the European Union are large consumers of timber and timber products from abroad, accounting for almost three-quarters of world timber imports. Most of this wood comes from countries where illegal tree felling is the norm.

In 2000, the United States alone imported over $450 million worth of timber from Indonesia, which given Indonesia’s illegal logging rate could represent $330 million worth of timber from illegal sources.

If importing countries were to insist that timber and timber products are certified under internationally recognized environmental and social standards such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council, then illegal logging would become more difficult.

Exporting countries would profit by protecting the integrity of forest ecosystems, and could secure higher prices for certified wood on international markets.

Russia, for instance, loses $1 billion in export revenues each year because its wood is not certified. To counteract this unfortunate result, it is now developing a mandatory certification system for standing forests.

Certification along with existing international agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, can help to prevent illegal logs from crossing international borders — if laws and standards are upheld.

In addition, recycling and reduced use of throw-away timber products can lower the demand for timber that has made illegal logging profitable. As the Chinese government has recognized, the services that forests provide, such as flood control, can be worth far more than the lumber they contain.