Is sustainable timber production viable in the tropics?


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A few years ago, Dick Rice and several colleagues at Conservation International created a huge controversy in forestry circles by publishing articles in Scientific American and Science that argued that most companies would never adopt sustainable forest management in the tropics because conventional logging was more profitable. Even more startling, they claimed that traditional selective logging not only provided higher returns but also damaged forests less than ’sustainable’ forest management systems that require large gaps in the canopy and the harvesting of many species. They went on to say that protected areas were the only viable way to conserve forest ecosystems and proposed that loggers be allowed to selectively log forests once, after which the forests should become parks.

In ’Sustainable Forest Futures’, a CSERGE working paper, David Pearce, Francis Putz, and Jerome Vanclay respond to the challenge posed by Rice and his associates by exhaustively reviewing the evidence on whether ’sustainable forest management’ is viable or desirable in the tropics. Following Rice, the authors use the term ’conventional timber harvesting’ to refer to existing practice, which typically pays little attention to maintaining long-term timber supply. ’Sustainable timber management’ implies taking steps to ensure forests continue to produce timber over time. ’Sustainable forest management’ also includes maintaining the environmental services and non-timber forest products forests provide.

Based on some thirty empirical studies, the authors confirm Rice’s conclusion that although sustainable timber management sometimes provides reasonable rates of return, conventional timber harvesting is almost always more profitable. This implies that without additional incentives, one cannot expect companies to adopt sustainable management. The short sightedness of many loggers, the slow rise in international timber prices, political uncertainty, and tenure insecurity simply reinforce this.

On the other hand, the authors reject Rice’s claim that sustainable timber management generally damages forests more than conventional logging. They say Rice bases that conclusion largely on the particular case of mahogany extraction in Bolivia, and even there it may not hold. In many, although not all, cases, sustainable timber management performs better in terms of carbon storage and biodiversity conservation than conventional logging approaches, as well as producing more timber. If new carbon markets emerge, sustainable forest management might compete effectively with conventional timber harvesting. Timber certification systems may also provide a sufficient incentive for sustainable forest management in certain circumstances.

Pierce and his colleagues raise doubts about Conservation International’s claim that protected areas are a simple and low-cost way to conserve forests. Protected areas have substantial direct costs in addition to the indirect cost of keeping people from using forests for other purposes. Letting companies selectively log an area before converting it into a park may open the area up to encroachment by loggers and farmers.

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Further reading

If you would like to request a free electronic copy of ’Sustainable Forest Futures’ you can write Mrs. Alex Howe at:

To send comments to the authors, you can write Jerome Vanclay at: or Francis Putz at