Study explodes myth of ‘sustainable logging’ in Amazonian rainforests

A little-known study that first appeared last year shows what some environmentalists have been saying for years – that most timber exploitation in the Amazon is not ‘sustainable’, and does not prevent deforestation but actually promotes it. The new findings will likely lead to calls for tighter controls or even complete prohibition on ‘certification’ of logging operations in such regions.

The study, entitled ‘Condition and fate of logged forests in the Brazilian Amazon’, which was published in August 2006 in the prestigious Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, is based on multi-year analysis of high resolution satellite data. The researchers monitored forest condition across tens of thousands of square kilometres before, during and after timber companies had passed through. It was found that

“Across 2,030,637 km2 of the Brazilian Amazon from 1999 to 2004, at least 76% of all harvest practices resulted in high levels of canopy damage sufficient to leave forests susceptible to drought and fire. We found that 16 +/- 1% of selectively logged areas were deforested within 1 year of logging, with a subsequent annual deforestation rate of 5.4% for 4 years after timber harvests. Nearly all logging occurred within 25 km of main roads, and within that area, the probability of deforestation for a logged forest was up to four times greater than for unlogged forests. In combination, our results show that logging in the Brazilian Amazon is dominated by highly damaging operations, often followed rapidly by deforestation decades before forests can recover sufficiently to produce timber for a second harvest. Under the management regimes in effect at the time of our study in the Brazilian Amazon, selective logging would not be sustained.”

The researchers looked in detail at the canopy damage done by ‘selective logging’, assessing the ‘area integrated gap fraction’ (AIGF), which is measure of how damaged the canopy is. They found that

“Between 1999 and 2002, 61-68% of all logging operations had AIGF values in the 10-40% range (Table 1). Gap fractions >10% represent high levels of damage that will leave the forest susceptible to fire under dry climatic conditions. An additional 8-17% of all observed logging sites had extremely high levels of damage, with AIGF values exceeding 40%. The highest-damage levels were found mainly in northern Matto Grosso, but other highly damaging timber harvest were noted throughout the region.”

Less than one-quarter of felling operations caused less than 10% canopy damage (apparently mostly where ‘reduced impact logging’ and very low intensity timber extraction was being practiced), but this was still more than the researchers expected to find. “Overall”, the researchers concluded, “our results indicate that selective logging operations in the Brazilian Amazon were dominated by high-damage operations.”

These results are consistent with other recent reports – such as ‘Concessions to Poverty’, by Forests Monitor and the Rainforest Foundation, which in summarising the available scientific literature on logging operations in the Congo Basin, found serious questions as to whether such operations can even theoretically achieve sustainability.

The findings of the new study represent a massive blow to the credibility of the tropical timber industry, which has long used the ‘use it or lose it’ argument in defence of the logging of rainforests. In fact, as the new report shows, it’s often more a case of ‘use it AND lose it’.

The findings also raise doubts about the FSC’s approach to certification in regions such as the Amazon. FSC has always argued that it can only assess for ‘certifiability’ at the level of the individual forest management unit – but the new findings suggest that wider environmental conditions at the landscape or regional level are also critical in determining whether a logging operation is truly sustainable in the long term or not. As some Brazilian experts have been warning for years, it may appear that any given logging company in the Amazon is ‘compliant’ with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria, but this does not take into account the wider pattern of road-building that this operation might encourage, nor the patterns of immigration, settlement and land-use that might follow, nor the resulting overall increase in the forests’ susceptibility to fire. In other words, the certified forest will only be ‘sustainable’ until it burns down.

This all supports a growing sense amongst some FSC supporters that there are geographical regions in the world where FSC certification should not be permitted at all – because it serves to encourage and legitimise a model of ‘forest development’ that is simply not appropriate or sustainable in the wider context. In Indonesia, environmental and social justice campaigners have for many years called for a complete moratorium on FSC certification (which the FSC and various certifers have totally ignored) because what is really needed is a complete reform of the underlying policy and approach to forest management away from industrial logging concessions. In Brazil, certification standards in the Amazon region should at least be ‘evidence-based’, and therefore require that, in order to obtain certification, logging operations should not cause canopy damage above the seemingly critical level of 10%.


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