Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Deforestation Misconception - The cause of rainforest deforestation is not logging

We here at Maderas Sostenibles were excited to learn of an effort to replace the tropical hardwood planks on the Brooklyn Bridge from a sustainable forest planted in its name. According to the Brooklyn Bridge Forest's website,

"Rather than a substitute material (like recycled plastic or chemically treated softwood), we propose an innovative strategy to use ethically sourced hardwood. A dedicated Brooklyn Bridge Forest will be endowed by sponsors like you, and managed and harvested in a way that surpasses even the strictest Forest Stewardship Council standards. This sustainable forest (in a yet to be chosen location) will ensure that the Promenade boardwalk has the wood it needs for centuries to come, and that the global environment has a new and powerful ally in the people of New York City and the friends of the Brooklyn Bridge."

Because of the maintenance required for its extensive boardwalk systems and parks, New York City is one of the largest purchasers of tropical hardwood in North America. With good reason, environmentalists Rainforest of New York and New York Climate Action Group have given the city an abundance of heat on this issue and have called for the immediate cease of the tropical hardwoods used.

So when this sustainable forest project was proposed in the NYtimes to provide the tropical hardwood needed to replace the 11,000 planks used in the Brooklyn bridge in a socially and environmentally responsible way, we were surprised to see the same negative responses and quickly reminded of the misconceptions surrounding the forestry industry.

What most people don’t understand is that the forest is not clear cut by loggers. Loggers remove at most 10 species out of the rainforest which normally has 40-50 species. Furthermore, they only remove mature trees and leave behind the smaller trees which serve for future stock.

The rainforest is mostly cleared by agriculture, namely cattle farmers, who have no alternative but to cut down forest without having to take out any kind of permit or solicit change of land use. Logging access roads often provide access to these poor farmers and speeds up deforestation if the loggers leave once they are done logging. If the area is managed and controlled, the cattle ranchers are not allowed to come in after the loggers to clear cut and the forest continues regenerating.

Any project that aims to preserve forest as a perpetual source of wood is a project that is truly fighting global warming because it ensures that for at least one area the land use will not change. Helping indigenous groups defend their large boundaries from cattle ranchers is a perfect example of how to prevent deforestation.

Logging must be controlled and forests must be managed in a sustainable way. A healthy sustainable forestry industry in a rainforest area provides alternatives to cattle ranching which is the easiest way for impoverished people in rainforest areas to make a living. Most importantly it puts a value on standing forest.

The answer is not as simple as saying “Stop buying tropical wood and you stop rainforest degradation”. This would remove the value from the forest and thus it becomes worth more to its owner as a pasture and we have seen it happen first hand here in Nicaragua. If there is no permission to use wood a cattle farmer will cut down trees which produce wood and burn them to put in pasture.

The answer lies in protection, management, and creating alternatives to cattle farming. Understanding the complex socio economic forces which cause deforestation is the first step to solving them. Encouraging the planting of trees in the tropics, the use of this renewable resource, and the preservation of forest is essential to combating the deforestation caused by agriculture. We are going to need more projects like the Brooklyn Bridge Forest, but in order to gain support, we must get past the misconceptions surrounding forestry practices.

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