by Bronson Griscom, via the Nature Conservancy’s Planet Change Blog
Can tropical forests be logged sustainably and still maintain their incredibly rich biodiversity — and benefits to people? A new study published in the journal Conservation Letters provides evidence that, with smart forest management, the answer can be “yes.”
As a forest scientist and a co-author on this article, I believe our findings confirm a critical middle way forward in protecting tropical forests: maintaining the diversity of tropical forest plants and animals, reducing carbon pollution, securing economic opportunities for local communities, and recognizing that the world’s growing population will continue to have significant needs for timber.
Why a “middle way”? Why not just focus on halting logging of these forests wherever possible?
After all, our article does find that fully protected forests are often better at conserving more plants and animals than forests managed for timber. Also, cutting trees in the tropics generates as much carbon pollution as all the cars, planes, boats, and trains in the world. That’s why a lot of organizations like The Nature Conservancy, where I work, see protecting tropical forests as a powerful part of the solution to climate change.
But what happens when tropical forest logging is halted?
For one thing, what happens to the people in tropical forest regions who depend upon logging to put bread or rice on the table for their families? Getting rid of logging jobs may backfire as a conservation goal if the alternative livelihoods involve forest conversion. (We’ve seen this in Borneo, where villages face the option of engaging timber companies or oil palm companies … or attempting to refuse both and relying on subsistence agriculture.) Another problem: some builders might replace wood with another material like steel or cement, and the process of making those other materials generates more carbon pollution than wood. Furthermore, in some places loggers are a stronger force for forest protection than national parks. This dynamic has been demonstrated in community-managed forests of Mexico and Guatemala.
These are reasons why we considered the implications of a “middle way” in tropical forest conservation: a path that integrates logging and conservation. Our study reviews over 100 scientific papers and concludes that, in places with improved forest management practices, selectively logged tropical forests retain the lion’s share of their plants and animals (85-100%) and carbon (roughly 75%). Not only that: timber yields can be sustained, albeit at a lower timber volume than the first cut.
In other words, tropical forests are surprisingly resilient to damage, as long as they are not completely cleared for another land use.