Tropical Hardwood Forest Conservation

Overview of the Problem

  • There is overwhelming evidence from expert sources that tropical forests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have been devastated at unprecedented, accelerating rates over the past two decades. Brazil has just announced (Dec. 2008) a major initiative to save huge areas of incredibly diverse ecosystems that are being eradicated. Similar pronouncements in the past have been only slightly more successful than promises to protect elephants, black rhinos, tigers and many other species and ecosystems. The damage includes: pillaging of trees in legally-protected reserves, clear-cutting, forest destruction from the dropping and removal of enormous 150-foot trees, massive erosion of fragile soils, and elimination of species found nowhere else on earth. My research and telephone interviews with experts and dealers in the tropical wood trade confirmed that illegal cutting and smuggling is pervasive. I have observed it first-hand in Mexico and Central America. Phenomenal destruction has also been occurring in southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
  • Although some woodturners gather their own wood locally (and more should do so), others buy wood from a wide diversity of "exotic" tree species growing in wild tropical rainforests and dry forests throughout the world. The building industry consumes proportionately much more wood, but from a much smaller number of tree species that are usually quite abundant and often grown sustainably in plantations.
  • My research produced a list (see Identification) of 100 tropical species turned and sold for use in turning, and there are many more species sold under imprecise common names. For example, dealers use "Rosewood" to identify not just the 50+ species in the Rosewood (Dalbergia) genus (many endangered and listed on the IUCN Redlist), but other trees that are not even in the same genus.
  • Woodturners are mostly blind to the species and ecosystems they are damaging. At the present time it is essentially impossible to buy thick turning stock with any guarantee or certification of compliance with environmental and social welfare standards.
  • The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the largest worldwide, completely independent, non-profit forestry certification system. I described it at length in my Articles. FSC has a main office in Bonn and a U.S. chapter ( The FSC sets the 57 criteria for forest management, and other entities approved by FSC issue certificates and audit compliance. Rainforest Alliance was the non-profit pioneer here; its SmartWood arm operates in 63 countries. Wood certified by SW has the FSC logo and also may bear the RA seal. Some of the species on my list are harvested under certification, but only for milled lumber.
  • The U.S. Congress amended the Lacey Act in 2008 to require import declarations by wood importers and to make it a federal crime to take, possess, transport or sell a tree or part thereof when the tree has been harvested in violation of a host country law protecting the tree or the forest. Woodturners need to work together to protect the species and the ecosystem.
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    Copyright © 2009 by Bradford F. Whitman. All rights reserved.