Page last updated at 19:36 GMT, Monday, 11 February 2008

Consumers must stop forest destruction

John Nelson
John Nelson

Some people may not sit so comfortably on their patio furniture if they knew where the wood came from, argues John Nelson. In this week's Green Room, he says the demand for wood products is threatening the long-term survival of communities around the globe.

Moabi tree (Image: John Nelson/Forest Peoples Programme)
Up to now, indigenous communities such as Baka have been powerless to stop logging from occurring on their lands
Most DIY enthusiasts would be shocked to find that their new garden decking helped to increase the poverty of hunter-gatherer communities in the Congo Basin of Central Africa.

What about the recently purchased hardwood table and chairs? Did these come from a 300-year-old tree that, until cut down for export to Europe, supplied a hundred poor people in Cameroon with oil, protein and medicine?

Armed with this knowledge, would the customers' new furniture be quite so comfortable?

Ngola Baka typifies Pygmy hunter-gatherer communities in Cameroon; it is small, remote, cash-poor and surrounded by small fields of manioc and plantain to supplement a varied and healthy forest diet based upon meat, fish, fruits, nuts, honey, leaves and mushrooms.

Since there is no dispensary, and little money, medicines are found in the forest, in the barks, roots and leaves gathered during hunting and gathering excursions up to 20km (12 miles) away.

Diminishing returns

Forest biodiversity is at the heart of Baka community subsistence, and Congo Basin forests are widely recognised as a global asset. The UK government has committed more than £50m ($25m) towards protecting them.

The wealth of the basin's rainforests is also targeted by big business. Logging and mining companies are legally entitled to exploit millions of hectares.

Only two kilometres from Ngola Baka, for example, the community forest gives way to an industrial logging concession. The Moabi tree found there is particularly favoured by loggers for its hard, dark wood and high market price.

Community members taking a GPS reading (Image: John Nelson/Forest Peoples Programme)
Cameroon law stipulates that commercial loggers must consult with local communities over their logging plans

The Moabi's fruit is also a key component of Baka subsistence, especially for the rich oil pressed from the nut. People rely upon it for their survival.

Last year, it was harvested by Baka women in a forest grove 12km from the village, in the middle of the logging concession, as has been done seasonally for years.

But those trees are now gone, cut down during 2007 and exported to Europe to make garden furniture and coffee tables. Ngola Baka is a poorer, hungrier place as a result of European tastes for luxury.

Last week I saw once again - like a scratched record repeating a verse - how the systematic exploitation of such areas by industrial loggers progressively undermines the welfare of indigenous forest communities.

New forest-use maps, created by local Baka communities with the support of the UK Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and the Centre for Environment and Development in Cameroon (CED), illustrated the huge overlap between Baka traditional lands and the legal boundaries of neighbouring logging concessions.

We discovered that up to 40,000 hectares of forest used by Ngola Baka are now being logged. Moabi are targeted along with a host of other tree species used by Baka. The future of the community is at stake as its forest is stripped of trees. This should be stopped, but who on Earth is going to do that?

Cameroon law stipulates that commercial loggers must consult with local communities over their logging plans.

They must help local communities to document their traditional use areas, negotiate with them where overlaps are identified, and establish mechanisms to avoid conflicts with communities in areas targeted for logging.

However, there is little evidence that this occurs anywhere in Central Africa. The results are systematic, long-term degradation of forest wealth, reduced forest community welfare and increasing poverty of an indigenous population experiencing jaw-dropping rates of mortality for children aged under five.

Logging on

Up to now, indigenous communities such as Baka have been powerless to stop logging from occurring on their lands. However, with the support of a few progressive European donors, some have started to document their traditional lands.

They are entering into dialogues with government, conservation agencies and logging companies to negotiate protection for their forest rights.

Hand-held GPS

New GPS mapping technologies developed for use by non-literate communities such as Baka are helping forest communities to take over documentation of their traditional forest use.

They are putting themselves on the map and being given a stronger negotiating position with loggers, as well as with conservation and development agencies targeting their regions.

But these fire-fighting efforts by communities and their local supporters alone are not enough. Without significant additional support from European timber dealers - the buyers who drive the industrial wood trade - indigenous communities will remain powerless to stop their forests being destroyed by unscrupulous producers.

Their children are doomed to increasing poverty because there is too much money being made in Europe.

Most European consumers do not understand the impact on poor African communities of their timber purchases, due to the lack of information about where it comes from and how it is produced, and the impacts of its harvest on forest community welfare.

I believe that if most knew the reality, they would be far more discerning about what they bought.

The cruelty of battery poultry farming in the UK, which has received so much attention recently, pales into insignificance when compared with the logging injustices and increasing poverty of indigenous forest communities who simply want their children to survive childhood, to gain greater access to health services, and to learn to read even a little bit.

Europeans, and consumers across the globe, have the power to stop the disaster that is overwhelming forest peoples, but will they take up the challenge?

John Nelson is Africa policy adviser for the Forest Peoples Programme, a UK Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working to support forest communities around the world to secure their lands and destinies

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with John Nelson? Can consumer power help save forests thousands of miles away? Do retailers provide enough data for people to make informed choices? Or is it the job of governments to ensure that existing measures to protect indigenous people's welfare are enforced?

Glad to see this discussion. I work with private forest landowners in Wisconsin and encourage certification by FSC of our sustainable forestry practices. One thing FSC is strong on is protecting native peoples rights so it is too bad Mr. Nelson did not mention consumers can look for FSC labeling to certify both sustainable forestry and development are part of the management that created a given wood product. We need this market to develop and grow to pay for the cost of considerate land stewardship.
Charly Ray, Ashland, WI USA

The problem here in America, is that we have hundreds of enviornmental laws that will not allow logging of US trees. We have the same amount of trees here in the US then we did hundreds of years ago. What these enviornmentalists don't relaize is that when you chop down US trees, you order new ones to be planted. Unfortunatly, we now have to order our lumber from South America, and Africa. The countries we get lumber from don't replant trees and millions of poor people build communities in the vacant land. if you want to save trees, buy domestic lumber.
Philip Lorio, Richmond Mi. US

Local forest resource is enough for local use and their survival, but not enough for 'out side' consumption. So if we as consumer stop buying wood furniture which made of local owned wood will help a lot to conserve local forest and world environment.
surin, Bangkok, Thailand

Canada is the world largest producer of timber. There is no organised planting of trees to balance the cutting dawn of trees. Besides this thousand of trees get burned due to wild fire every year. Logging in reserved lands own by native Canadians is also very high. People must be requested to plant more trees in those land used for logging.
Sinnathamby.Sundaralingam, Toronto.Canada

It is time for people to wake up and ask the real questions. NGOs can not figth with the power of States. We need a real political decision in order to stop this destructive and illegal operation . The European Union should require States producers to provide products of a flawless traceability. They must oblige European importers who turn a blind eye to the timber they import, which is very often the result of a fraudulent exploitation.
Mandjombe ongolo Bindji, Douala Cameroon

Most of my patio furniture was bought used from yard sales. My shelves in the house are used from craigslist and my dining room table is about 60 years old, handmade by my grandfathers friend. Maybe the best form of consumer activism is also a form of environmental activism: buy used stuff! This way you save good usable furniture from the wasteheaps and also prevent exploitation of hardwoods from other countries. I think if everyone embraced recycling, even big things like tables and sofas, these issues would be less of a problem.
Amelia, Austin, TX, USA

I have longed for the chance to express my disgust at the practice of using Teak as railway sleepers, witnessed by me, as I traveled in Malaya many years ago
alan rose, maidstone kent

it's a kind of tracedy.This tracady is like to go possession for natives.
ibrahim uzan, turkey/izmir

In response to Dan Grandage, I would like to point out that B&Q was a founder member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and is committed to sourcing products that are both sustainable and ethical. B&Q has received several awards for its social responsibility policy and topped the Greenpeace league table for garden furniture in 2006 - its wooden garden furniture being 100% constructed from FSC certified wood.
Neil Derham, Southampton, UK

Wood is a renewable resource. The annual growth of wood is 3 to 4 times annual demand! The greatest cause of deforestation is clearing land for agriculture due to population increase and for cash crops. With better management, more wood and other forest products could be used. To reduce deforestation, agricultural productivity has to increase and population increase has to be reduced. Curtailing the use of forest products could lead to more deforestation due to land clearing for cash and subsistence crops.
Keith Openshaw, Vienna VA USA

Mankind has a problem whether it is eating a fish that has been caught in the oceans that are plundered, using a tree from the forest or driving a piece of steel. Our foot print on this earth is rather severe but unless we are prepared to act like the Chinese and restrict population growth....we will continue to create major problems for other species. We simply have a world with at least 4 billion to many people in it ....the trouble being, I want to stay, which of you are prepared to go?
Larry Hallatt, Nanaimo BC Canada

The points this article advance are valid. Customers must be conscious of where the raw materials of the products come from and the effect of harvesting or utilizing these raw materials on the people who depend on them. However, customers must be presented with other options; otherwise, how will they satisfy their needs, for furnitures, for example. And customers must be educated on the effect of their buying behavior.
Willie Bobis, Davao City, Philippines

Why is this a big problem? Why not make logging illegal in these areas? Is that not the simplest answer to this problem? The Africans own that land. If they decide that the logging companies must go, then the logging companies must go. End of discussion, no?
RAJIB, Toronto, Canada

I wish there would be a moratorium on the logging of tropical forests and a forest peoples conference to discuss how to best protect forest habitat. It's an oversimplification to think consumers in far off lands can single handedly stop forest exploitation by changing their buying habits although it may help some. End use affects the price of wood but people with chainsaws aren't concerned with whether a tree they cut goes to make charcoal or into patio furniture as long as they get paid. The moment a section of forest gets a price tag it's fair game and I think it takes government action to put a stop to this. The world's countries should band together to pay what's needed to keep standing timber standing and invest in job creation where it's needed most.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

Who decides what timber to use? Interior designers. Do hotels care who furnish their lobbies and where the material comes from? Do the glossy magazines beloved by the British indicate the source of material? Is it a subversive lingering for a colonial past that fosters the demand for dark woods? All certification can be by-passed. How "certified" is FSC MDF produced in Brazil, converted into cheap furniture in China and sold in the UK? Do you "NEED" it anyway?
Adam Colledge, Czech republic

Wooden furniture, wooden poles and wooden equipment are indeed the driving force for massive deforestation. Plastic and recyled plastic do offer a viable alternative in most cases.
Sam Chow, Hong Kong

Yes- But you need strict labeling on all forest products on the sustainability of all the different woods and perhaps a significant "environmental tax" placed on hardwoods etc. whose harvesting is damaging cultures and ecologies. Education is a must too.
Charles Dunn, Fairfield, CT. USA

Consumer power can help save forests and limit de-forestation, but only if responsible retailers provide them with sufficient data to actually make an informed and responsible choice. Myself and my Indonesian wife founded an online furniture retail company recently with this issue specifically in mind and in part driven by a desire to limit the deforestation which is currently occuring across Asia aswell as Africa. We actively monitor our suppliers and their sources of wood to ensure that our furniture is produced using sustainable sources of wood whether government or FSC accredited, perhaps if some of the big players eg John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, B&Q did the same and actually informed their customers of what the true cost of their solid wood coffee table was many would think again or at least be prepared to pay a little extra...
Dan Grandage, Manchester, UK

Consumer power can help. However, we need to turn around the voices in western society that say 'It's my right to buy what I want, you can't stop me. Who are you to tell me to stop buying a 4*4 or a new hardwood floor?'. It's about responsibilty and the I'm alright Jack mentallity of these people. We need to ahve the guts to stand up and say, 'it is wrong to buy battery raised chicken, or 4*4s if you live in london, or a hardwood floor if it is not from a sustainably managed forest'. So what if things get more expensive, we all eat too much and spend too much on rubbish anyway. I'm sick of pussyfooting around the issues, lets tell it like it is!
Chris, leeds

It's all about money. It's unfortunate that it's cheaper to import wood from the other side of the world instead of using local hardwoods. Our own woodlands are gradually being brought back to the way they were managed for hundreds of years and this managment can provide the timber for our own consumption. If people were willing to pay a little extra for local products then the worlds rainforests would be in much better shape. When I make furniture for customers I'm forced to use European plywood and other simalr, cheaper products because people aren't willing to pay for proper English Oak! What a shame.
Mike, Manchester

I agree the decisions made by consumers in developed economies have a notable impact on the state of forests irrespective of how far removed the forest is from the consumer of wood-products. At this point in time, due to the usual pre-occupation with just the bottom line un-tempered by the ethics of ones business practices means foresters, importers and retailers do not have the necessary motivations to adequately inform their customers on where and how the wood was harvested. Until consumers and regulators apply the necessary pressures on the the enterprises involved from harvesting to retailing of wood products the status quo weill remain and indigenous communities and the natural environment will continue to pay an exacting price for someone else' profit margin and luxury. Governments of where the wood is harvested and the governments of where the wood products, along with the consumers at the tail end of this process have a joint responsibility in ensuring that the harve! sting of wood is done from forests farms and not from native and ancient woodland which support not only indigenous communities but irreplaceable bio-diversity.
dm, Guernsey

Please explain why the cruelty of battery farming "pales into insigificance", when it is the grossly over-populated human race at the root of all these issues? Has biodiversity slipped off the agenda?
becs, colchester

Consumer power can make a real difference and it doesnt even have to cost more, it's just about buying a product that has an FSC seal of approval on it. Retailers need to do more to ensure that the wood entering there stores is sourced responsibily and sustainably but to make this easier and more widespread the government also need to get involved to stop illegally logged wood (and palm oil for that matter) entering the UK. This would allow consumers to make informed choices everyday, rather than occassionaly sending these countries a pitiful cheque (£50m wont even start to combat the damage we've done) to make up for our wrong doings over time.
Adam Taylor, Colchester, Essex

It's great that the BBC highlights these issues - this world is all that the human race has and we are destroying it for financial profit. I feel that news items like these should eclipse coverage of mundane and unimportant articles such as the investigation into the death of Diana Spencer, and warrant much higher profile coverage on BBC news.
Russell Jakubowski, Alton

Like so many things in modern environmentalism there seems to be so many paradoxes. On the one hand we're supposed to buy fair trade products from a subsistence farmer in the third world. But if we do that then our carbon footprint increases so we're supposed to buy local. Bad luck Mr Third World Subsistence Farmer. Then we're supposed to encourage exports from poor countries in order to alleviate the poverty there. But we can't do that either because we're destroying forests and indiginous people's lives. How can we be ethical? No matter what we do it will be wrong.
Steve, Teesside, UK

Nearly there - so close ! All it needs is one final little intellectual leap and he's done it. More more more; 300 years is nothing in human history; it's simply a brief glitch. Yet the habit we have gotten into these brief last 300 years is going to kill everything. Unless we stop; stop having more people, who in turn must stop wanting more stuff, and in turn stop wanting more people after that. The human race has been over-manned since about 1973, when the human population was 3 billion people; half what it is now. Well, sorry western "more more more" expansionist economics; there is no "more" left; you've dug it up, burned it, buried it, trashed it. There is no more "more" If you want to live; if you want any planet left to live on; it's time to stop "more more more". That's the last intellectual dot to join up. This guy is close; give him another year, and he'll figure it out. So; how bad will it have to get for the other 6 billion of you to figure it out ? Cheers Steven
steven walker, Penzance

Consumers should look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo on any wood products that they buy. What this means is that in theory the product has been sourced from sustainably managed forests. In practise the certification system is far from flawless, but it is a good starting point for consumers to excert some market pressure on producers to manage their forests in a sustainable and sensitive way.
Graham Phillips, Luss, Scotland

I agree that consumers in developed countries are the key method of bringing about change. If they reject tropical hardwood products, then timber dealers will not buy the logged timber. In order to stimulate demand for hardwood products again, Governments would be under pressure to enforce their own laws concerning the rights of indigenous people and timber dealers would be under pressure to account for the sustainability of their product.
Roger Parsons, Chichester UK

Consumer power is indeed a powerful tool. However, this article doesn't tell consumers how to flex their muscles. Forest certification schemes such as FSC require forestry companies to protect the traditional rights of local communities, as well as having standards for biodiversity, water use, worker rights etc. and to share the benefits of the forests. The mark can be clearly seen on certified products (furniture, timber, paper, charcoal), and assures the consumer that the wood was obtained fairly, responsibly and sustainably.
Anne Danby, Nzara, South Sudan

There is not enough detail about where wood products come from anywhere. Firstly, no government should allow imports of endangered forest products. We should only be sourcing wood from properly supervised plantations. Though this is not a guarantee on the sustainability of the wood, it would be a big step forward. Any country not conforming to high standards would have their timber license revoked. It is time to get tough everywhere, or otherwise it will be too late for indiginous people and animals. Given an informed choice, I would like to believe that people would make a purchase based on conscience.
Chris Hargreaves, Melbourne Australia

I absolutely think that consumer power can save forests if the consumer is knowledgeable of where the products they buy come from and the effect on native people. That is where the problem exists, on the lack of consumer knowledge. This could be remedied if consumers did a little research about the product, however this is usually not the case. This leaves it to retailers, who likely do not want to share negative information about their product. This is where the govt. should step in and enforce regulations that would require retailers to post accurate information about the origins of their products. Regardless, it is up to consumers to be responsible and full understand where the products they buy come from, whether it be a highly valuable forest in Africa or sweatshop in Indonesia.
Lesley Jenkins, Dayton, Ohio - U.S.A.

Consumers need to demand specifics about the wood or wood products they buy. Where does it come from and exactly what species is it? Common names, as opposed to botanical names, add to the confusion faced by consumers. Many woodworkers and retailers do not seem to know or care where their wood comes from. They need to. People can make a clear statement that can help forests worldwide by demanding the right to be informed about any wood that they buy, raw or product, and only buying what wood has definite verifiable sources. Governments will never do the job.
3t Vakil, Patillas, Puerto Rico

Yes we agree that every thing possible should be done to protect the well-being of poor communities dependant on the natural products of long existent forests the world over.
Michael and Sarah Smith, Weymouth Dorset England

I was surprised that John didn't mention the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC appraise local national bodies to audit companies wishing to become FSC approved. FSC approval means organisations can publicise the fact that they stock only sustainably sourced timber. Sustainable in this case meaning non-illegally sourced timber from managed forests. Having said this, I'm unsure what the FSC do in cases where the logging is legal, yet damaging.
Russ, Wellington, NZ

I've never seen any info. in diy stores about where wood comes from and very few people think it is an issue.Most people want wood to be long lasting and to have been "treated".If you ask the seller where wood has come from,or say you would prefer wood sustainably produced he will say perhaps that there is no demand or that people prefer exotic hard wood.Not easy to spread the conservation message Been trying to do so for years.
susan, france

Yes, consumers would boycott all companies using such wood if we understood the facts as presented in this article. What can we do?
Carol Hedberg, Minneapolis, MN USA

We need a lot more exposés like this, but why play down the suffering of battery chickens as this article does? It's unscientific as well as speciesist to say the suffering of other vertebrates is relatively insignificant.
Jim, London, UK

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