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Razing the land to feed massive timber hunger
Fuelled by high demand for timber products, legal and illegal logging are important drivers of Amazon rainforest destruction.
Mahogany tree being felled. Amazonas, Brazil.

 In 1996, Asian companies invested more than US$ 500 million in Brazil’s timber industry, mainly because they were keenly aware of the speed at which the forests in Asia are being cut1.

However, controlling the legality and impact of such operations within the Amazon rainforest is tricky at best, considering the number of extractive operations and their remoteness.

Which factors promote logging?

Logging is intimately linked with road construction and migrant movements. Areas that have been selectively logged are much more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of road access. Logging gives access to rainforests, where fuel wood, game and building materials are available.

Illegal logging in the Amazon

While laws exist which authorize logging in designated areas, illegal logging is widespread in Brazil and several Amazon countries. A study by a Brazilian commission showed that 80% of all logging in the Amazon was illegal during the late 90s2. Of the 13 companies that were investigated, 12 had broken the law.

Logging operations are set up in remote forest areas and can be characterized by any of the following:
  • Use of forged permits
  • Cutting any commercially valuable tree regardless of which ones are protected by law
  • Cutting more than authorized quotas
  • Cutting outside of concession areas
  • Stealing from protected areas and indigenous lands

In Colombia, while illegal practices have been reduced, government assessments reveal that between 80% and 90% of all forest clearing is still illegal, with timber being smuggled into Brazil and Peru.

What are the impacts of illegal logging?

Whereas sustainable logging can be a long-term source of income for people and the government, logging is often not carried out in accordance to such standards. This has a number of wide-ranging impacts, including fragmentation of species habitat and significant financial losses.

Because the terms for forest concessions are short, companies have few incentives to replant trees or harvest efficiently. The strategy is to obtain as much profit as possible in the available timeframe, leaving many damaged areas that will take years to recover.3

Patches of Amazon rainforest are often sold off as large concessions to firms at prices that are far below their market value. What follows is a rushed effort to maximize yield and profit as fast as possible.

Little consideration is given to safeguard timber stocks for future harvests, and this leads to the usual litany of biodiversity loss, over-hunting of wildlife and subsequent conversion for agriculture or pasture.

Collateral damage

Although selected logging targets specific commercially valuable trees, logging methods usually result in collateral damage. Surrounding trees may be damaged or brought down unintentionally.

IMAZON (Amazon Institute of Man and the Environment) has documented that for every commercial tree removed, 27 other trees more than 10 cm in diameter are damaged, 40 m of road are created and 600 m2 of canopy is opened4.

Once fallen, trees must be transported which may involve using tractors. The erosion that follows logging washes away nutrients and adversely affects streams and rivers. It also takes time for timber to grow back, provided that the logged areas have not been taken over for cattle-ranching or cultivation.

Do forests grow back on logged areas?

Scientists have monitored logged areas to determine to what extent logged areas can recover. In Tapajós National Forest in the Brazilian Amazon, a study in terra firma rainforest (forested area not affected by seasonal flooding) that had been logged and left as such in 1979 showed that logging stimulated growth, but this effect was short lived, lasting only about 3 years. After a number of years, growth rates become similar to that in forests that have not been logged.5

1Laurance et al, 2001
2Viana, G. 1998. Report of the External Commission of the Chamber of Deputies Destined to Investigate the Acquisition of Wood, Lumber Mills and Extensive Portions of Land in the Amazon by Asian Loggers. Brasilia, Brazil. Logging. Accessed 8/10/05
4Holloway, 1993, in Kricher, 1997
5Silva et al. 1995. Growth and yield of a tropical rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon 13 years after logging. Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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