A tropical conversation - sustainable forestry

Wood Focus magazine
20 May 2014

With many of the world’s tropical forests ceding ground to commercial agriculture, it has never been more important to promote the economic benefits of sustainable forestry. Eoin Redahan spoke to Bob Johnston, Director of the Tropical Forest Foundation in Virginia, USA, about effective tropical forest management.

What are the key principles for managing a tropical forest?
The key elements of reduced impact logging are teaching proper inventory systems, mapping techniques and the use of proper technology. We also focus on road planning and building, starting with the premise that you will work a concession for at least 20 years. You’re doing an inventory looking at commercially harvestable products over a 20year time period. So road and skid trails must be planned accordingly. It’s about setting aside high-conservation value forest, protecting water sheds, teaching proper road building, felling techniques and protecting biodiversity. The goal is to minimise damage to the standing forest, protect commercially harvestable trees and then do a post-harvest assessment. There’s a whole series of elements.

How should a forest be managed for commercial purposes?
Every forest type is different. For example, we’re looking at doing work in Peru, but northern Peru is different to the south. So you have to make different decisions about harvestable trees and conservation practices, based on the forest type and what kind of markets are available for that forest’s products. That’s an issue we spoke about during a talk at Yale University. One of the people in attendance owned a company in Ecuador. They were working with community foresters. The problem they have is that any single species doesn’t produce a large amount of products. The types of products [in demand] are going to determine the types of tree they harvest.

What are the most consistent problems you encounter?
There are people who depend on the forest, so it needs to be economically valued so that it can be conserved. The biggest loss of forest is caused by the conversion of land to agriculture. Commercial agriculture is the principle cause of lost forest, and subsistence agriculture is the second cause. The two account for 76% of global forest loss. We’re losing an area the size of England every year.

How much headway have you made?
Tropical deforestation is going down globally each year. We’ve had good progress in South America, and Asia has actually increased its tropical forest in the last 10 years. From a foundation standpoint, our biggest obstacle is capacity. Our training centres are running full all the time. We’d like to have more centres, but that takes money and trained staff.

With EU timber regulations tightening, is this making your jobs easier?
We’re very supportive of the fight against illegal logging because it hinders the legal market (illegal logs are sold cheaper, therefore they undercut the price of the legal trade). However, this has unintended consequences. At a recent meeting I attended, a European buyer said, ‘It’s easier and more reliable for me to buy American hardwoods than to import tropical woods, because of the EU regulations. Unless I have a specific need for a tropical species, I don’t buy it so much.’ That’s a downside of that regulation. It’s the same thing in the USA with the Lacey Act. If companies stop buying [from abroad], then we don’t have the economic value of the forest, and this makes it more likely that the forest will get converted into something else.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
Our plan is to start two more training centres by 2015. We’re working very hard in Peru and will start a feasibility study for a training facility in Cameroon.

Further information
For further information about the Tropical Forest Foundation’s work, visit www.tropicalforestfoundation.org  


The Tropical Forest Foundation (TTF) is a non-profit educational institution that promotes sustainable forest management. It provides a range of reduced impact logging training programmes, both on-site and from its regional training centres in Brazil, Guyana, the Congo Basin and Indonesia. Programme modules include Road Planning and Field Location, Training for Computer Assisted Contour Mapping and Post Harvesting Activities.

Forest loss statistics
13 million hectares of tropical forests are disappearing each year
96% of deforestation occurs in tropical regions

* Figures taken from the European Commission

The Lacey Act?
A US conservation law that prohibits the trade of illegally sourced timber.