Developing markets for lesser-known timber species

A key to responsible forestry in Bolivia

Responsible forestry and forest certification cannot succeed in the tropics without developing appropriate uses and markets for lesser-known timber species (LKTS). Consumers are accustomed to purchasing a very limited range of timber species, and are generally unaware that thousands of useful wood species exist. Using a broader range of species conforms demand to what natural forests can produce sustainably and can reduce the chances that well-known species will be overexploited.

For example, of the hundreds of tree species that occur in Bolivia’s forests, only a relative handful are commonly used for wood products and fewer still are recognized abroad. Well-know woods like mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) are quickly snapped up by buyers.

In the natural forests of Bolivia, mahogany and other valuable trees tend to grow widely dispersed: it is common to find only a few harvestable trees in a given area of forest. The problem is that the fixed costs of responsible forest management – training workers, completing forest inventories and management plans, buying necessary equipment and building access roads, obtaining FSC certification, etc. – are considerable.

Well-known species are rarely available in sufficient quantity to cover all of these costs, and this means that markets must be developed for LKTS in order to make good forestry economically sustainable over the long term.

To illustrate the point, in the Chiquitano Dry Forest of eastern Bolivia, there are about 120 tree species, only about two dozens of which are useable for lumber. Of these dozens, a few are highly valuable, a few more are moderately valuable, and the remainder is currently lesser-known and low value.
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Species available in the Chiquitano Dry Forest.
© WWF Bolivia
In several acres of this type of forest, you might expect to find only 4 or 5 mature specimens of the dozen of useable species. Furthermore, in doing responsible forestry, you need to leave one tree behind for every 4 trees you remove to provide seed for future regeneration and harvests (you would expect to come back into the same area of forest every 20 or 30 years to harvest the valuable trees that were too young and small to cut the first time around). In this type of highly selective forestry, the volumes of timber coming out of the forest at each harvest are small, and fully half of the available volume may be from LKTS. Finding markets for the latter can make the difference between a profitable venture and one that is not viable over time!
Three reasons to buy lesser-known timber species:
  • LKTS can often substitute for better-known species in terms of performance and aesthetics in most applications, but they are generally more cost effective because they are abundant and underutilized.
  • The many LKTS available with rich, truly exotic colors and textures provide new design opportunities for homeowners as well as architects and designers.
  • The use of LKTS can alleviate pressure on well-known timber species and increase the economic viability of sustainable forest management.

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