Timber Certification: Where Is the Voice of the Biologist?


We are all familiar with the images—on television, in books, and, for many of us, in person—of tropical forests being logged for timber. We are also familiar with the figures: each year, between 5 and 5. 9 million ha of tropical forests are opened up for the first time to commercial logging. As conservation biologists, we have been studying the problem for more than 20 years and are cognizant of the main effects of selective timber extraction on flora and fauna. But so far we have been ineffective at translating that research into policy: the timber industry as a whole pays little attention to our results, and logging continues to be practiced in much the same way in most parts of the tropics. The world is aware of the problem, and many of the timber-consuming countries are looking to buy “green” timber. Yet there have been few changes on the ground in terms of how logging is done, especially in terms of how it affects the biodiversity of the forest. Why?

The global concern about the damaging effects of tropical timber harvesting has resulted in a search for ways to ensure more sustainable production. One important mechanism is timber certification, which is gaining currency in both consumer and producer countries—in consumer countries because of concerns over irreparable loss of tropical forests and in producer countries because of a desire to maintain access to a wide range of markets. After the recent crash in economies of many Asian timber-consuming nations, this means maintaining access to European and North American markets, which are increasingly demanding “labeled” timber and which are prepared to pay a high price for it. So all of the forces at present are on the side of conservation, creating the right atmosphere for biologists to have a major influence on certification criteria and hence on the way that tropical forests are logged. But are we having that influence, and are the problems highlighted by conservation biologists being incorporated into criteria of sustainability?

The answer is no. All certification bodies have produced detailed principles, criteria, guidelines, and indicators, but few of these concern wildlife. Those that do talk mainly about protecting sites important for flora and fauna but do not take into account the wider effects of logging on wildlife in the areas being logged. Inevitably, totally protected sites will be tiny compared with the areas allocated to production. The Malaysian state of Sarawak, one of the world's main producers of tropical timbers, is typical: 10% of the total land area has been designated for protection, while 50% is allocated to timber production. To protect wildlife over large parts of the landscape and guarantee the survival of wide-ranging species, we need to ensure that biodiversity is taken into consideration within the production forest itself, not just in small pockets within a sea of logging.

The Forest Stewardship Council ( FSC ) has the most widely used and possibly highest standards for timber certification. These standards have 10 principles, each with its own guidelines. These principles include ensuring that local laws are respected and taxes paid; providing a wide range of economic benefits and reducing waste; producing a management plan; sustaining timber output; and controlling environmental effects such as erosion and water pollution. Other FSC principles reflect the fact that much of the original concern regarding lack of sustainability came not from biologists but from human rights and indigenous people's groups. Hence, 3 of the 10 FSC principles are devoted to local people's and workers' rights. This, of course, is laudable and necessary. But there is a marked lack of corresponding principles regarding biodiversity in general and wildlife in particular.

Wildlife is affected by logging in various ways. The direct effects of timber extraction depend on the intensity and frequency of logging and the species involved. For one-off selective logging (timber companies enter an area only once for selective logging, after which regeneration is allowed to occur), some species, such as certain insectivorous birds, disappear entirely. Many species, such as primates and hornbills, decline in numbers, whereas populations of other species, such as browsing ungulates, increase due to the rapid growth of browse as the canopy is opened. But the most insidious problems for wildlife are the secondary effects of logging, most notably the dramatic increase in hunting.

Logging results in the immigration to the forest of large numbers of workers, many of whom hunt for their own consumption. Such people often are outsiders, living in the area only temporarily, with little incentive to conserve resources for the future. Hence, hunting rates are high: in a single logging camp of about 500 people in Sarawak, the annual catch was 1149 animals, or 29 metric tons of wild meat or bushmeat ( Bennett et al. 2000). In a single logging camp of 648 people in the Republic of Congo, the annual harvest was 8251 animals, or 124 tons of bushmeat ( Auzel & Wilkie 2000). In addition, roads built to allow timber extraction also act as conduits for a major trade in bushmeat: as logging roads enter, bushmeat flows out to markets, often many miles away.

Roads also allow access for other hunters and stimulate a cascade of changes in local hunting communities. Local people are drawn into a cash economy, with one of their only easy sources of cash being the sale of wildlife. Roads allow hunters to drive into remote areas of the forest, bringing with them shotguns, cartridges, and wire for snares that promote the efficient harvest of wildlife. The local economy is stimulated by the logging, which drives up the demand for bushmeat. The result is greatly increased hunting: per capita hunting rates in communities adjacent to roads in the Congo are three to six times higher than in communities remote from such roads, and up to 75% of the meat ( by weight) is sold ( Auzel & Wilkie 2000).

The bushmeat trade in Africa is now estimated to exceed one million metric tons per year, much of it coming from forests opened up by logging roads. Similar events are occurring in logging areas in Latin America and Southeast Asia. This greatly increased hunting is not sustainable and is characterized by a typical “boom and bust” cycle, with increased harvests in any one area soon being followed by population crashes of the exploited species. Hunting for commerce has wide reaching effects throughout the community. As species favored by market buyers decline (often the large ungulates, primates, and rodents), local hunters must turn to smaller species for their own subsistence. Because they are smaller, more are required, so their populations then decline. This has wider repercussions on the biodiversity of the forest as a whole because vital pollinators, browsers, and seed dispersers are lost and the capacity of the forest to regenerate after logging inevitably is reduced.

As part of the forest community, local people themselves are affected. Most people living in and around tropical forests derive more than 50% of their protein from bushmeat. In Nicaragua, wildlife provides 98% of the meat and fish consumed by Miskito Indians, and in Latin America as a whole, 10 indigenous groups consume an average of 59.6 g of protein per person per day from bushmeat ( Townsend 2000). Both of these groups consume well above the minimum protein levels required for healthy subsistence. In West Africa, 25% of people's protein requirements are met by bushmeat, and in Liberia 75% of the country's meat comes from wild animals ( Anstey 1991). In Sarawak, 67% of the meals of Kelabits and Penan contain wild meat, and it is their main source of protein ( Bennett et al. 2000). So loss of such wildlife due to opening up of the forests for logging affects the biodiversity of the forest as a whole (and more broadly its ecology) and thus also affects local communities.

These problems are reflected in FSC Principles 6.2 and 6.3, which state that “Safeguards shall exist which protect rare, threatened and endangered species and their habitats (e.g., nesting and feeding areas). Conservation zones and protection areas shall be established, appropriate to the scale and intensity of forest management and the uniqueness of the affected resources. Inappropriate hunting, fishing, trapping and collecting shall be controlled… Ecological functions and values shall be maintained intact, enhanced, or restored, including: a) forest regeneration and succession; b) genetic, species and ecosystem diversity; c) natural cycles that affect the productivity of the forest ecosystem.” Principle 7 says that the management plan shall provide “plans for the identification and protection of rare, threatened and endangered species.”

These principles address the issue of providing refuges for those few species that decline due to the direct effects of timber felling. But in terms of the far wider problems caused by logging, FSC criteria are not even melting the tip of the iceberg. Not only do they barely raise the issue of hunting and bushmeat trade, but they are so general and undefined that they are meaningless. Loss of wildlife on which local people depend is hardly addressed either. Principle 3. 2 states that “Forest management shall not threaten or diminish, either directly or indirectly, the resources or tenure rights of indigenous peoples,” but the meaning is general, and it is unlikely that “resources” is being read to mean major loss of bushmeat. These vague principles are not in line with the well-defined criteria for other issues such as sustainability of timber production and workers' rights.

Although I use the FSC criteria as an example, other certification systems are no better in this regard. For example, ITTO criteria also address establishment of protected areas, protection of endangered species, and features of special biological interest, but again they do not take on the issue of what happens to wildlife within the production forest itself. If nesting and breeding areas are protected against tree felling but the broader issue of hunting remains unaddressed, wildlife will continue to disappear across the landscape as logging spreads. Moreover, the lack of understanding about the effects of the logging process on wildlife and the ecology of the forest results in agencies working on sustainable forestry issues that frequently do not even have biologists on their team: foresters and anthropologists are usually present, but biologists frequently are overlooked.

Some positive initiatives are being enacted by individual countries. In Sarawak, concerns over the rapid loss of wildlife due to the timber industry and the associated bushmeat trade have resulted in a total ban on all commercial sales of wildlife and wildlife products throughout the state. Timber operators have been directed not to allow their staff to hunt or transport wildlife on company vehicles and to close nonessential roads as soon as a block has been logged to reduce further hunting. Such efforts are laudable but rare. If timber certification is to be a useful tool in promoting the sustainability of tropical forest logging, certification standards must be expanded to include the effects of logging on the biodiversity and ecology of the forest. As conservation biologists, we have the data and recognize the problems. It is vital that we now move to convert the data into policy.

To do this we need to influence certification bodies directly. The FSC, for example, is a membership organization, with decisions made by membership vote. Both individuals and nongovernmental organizations, as well as retailers and members of the industry, can join. Thus, as biologists in organizations and university departments or as individuals, we can provide a voice and perspectives that would otherwise not be heard. Information on membership and other aspects of the FSC is on their website ( www.fscoax.org). The site also has links to other certification bodies, which makes it easy to find out more about them as well. Biologists working in tropical-forest countries can try to influence logging managers at the scale of the company or concession, working directly with them to incorporate research results into ongoing logging activities. Experiences in both Congo and Malaysia have shown that this can be extremely effective, with managers often open to dialogue as long as it is based on science, not emotion. Indeed, this approach can even improve our scientific understanding if we can work with managers to try different logging protocols in the manner of adaptive management. Another approach is for biologists to work with colleagues from the social and agricultural sciences to form interdisciplinary teams on issues such as human nutrition.

As concerned biologists, we need to become more proactive and move beyond science alone. The mechanisms to do so are there, although they often take imagination, as well as considerable time, commitment, and diplomacy. To quote eminent field biologist George Schaller: “To understand nature is not enough. Scientists also have a moral obligation to help save what they study.” It is now our responsibility to use our knowledge to much better effect. Only then can we promote effective conservation and sustainable use of tropical forests that support a full range of biodiversity.