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A New Agreement Turns the Tide on Illegal Logging


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Map illustrating the connection between deforestation and the global timber trade.

Story Highlights
  • Illegal logging destroys millions of acres of forest each year.
  • China and the U.S. have agreed to work together to stop the trade of illegal wood.
  • People can protect forests and combat climate change by purchasing certified sustainable wood products.
"We all have to use the power we have to do the right thing — from the highest levels of government to the shopper who looks for an FSC label before buying a bookshelf."

Jack Hurd, director of the Conservancy's Forest Trade Program

By Misty Herrin

Can you save orangutans with a bookshelf?

Thanks in part to a new Nature Conservancy-supported agreement between China and the United States, people around the world will now have more power to save forests and fight climate change.

In May, the two countries — the largest importers of wood and wood-based products in the world — committed to work together to protect forests by excluding illegal and unsustainably harvested timber from supplier countries such as Indonesia, Russia and Papua New Guinea.

The agreement will give consumers greater access to wood products made only from certified legal and sustainably sourced wood — from furniture to home-building materials.

“To truly change global forest trade, countries that import timber must demand — and provide greater incentives for — legal and responsibly managed timber,” says Jack Hurd, director of the Conservancy's Forest Trade Program.

The Lynchpin: China

China has earned the nickname “the world’s woodshop” for good reason. The country imports 45 million cubic meters of raw wood annually — which it then manufactures into furniture and other products, most of which are exported for $9 billion in annual revenue.

But 60 percent of China’s imported wood is sourced from countries with high rates of illegal logging, such as Indonesia. And the United States buys more than 40 percent of China’s wood exports.

“China holds the key to the future of much of the world’s forests,” says Hurd. “Its economic might puts it in the driver’s seat. By importing only legally harvested timber from suppliers, China can influence forest conservation around the world.”

A Watershed Agreement

That's why the new U.S.-China agreement is a watershed moment in the quest to halt deforestation. It establishes a bilateral forum for:

  • Sharing information about shipments of timber;
  • Enhancing law enforcement against illegal logging activity; and
  • Encouraging partnerships with the private sector to promote sustainable forest management.

The agreement is the result of two years of close engagement between officials in both countries. The Conservancy aided the agreement by providing counsel and leading learning exchanges for Chinese government officials to both Indonesia and the United States.

According to Chen Xiaoqian, manager of the Conservancy’s Green Wood Project in China, “Government leaders increasingly understand our country’s ability to dramatically move the global timber industry toward sustainability.”

“Enlisting the support of the Chinese business sector requires leadership from the central government,” explains Chen. “This agreement signals the government’s growing commitment to clamp down on trafficking of illegally logged timber.”

At the Source: Life-Sustaining Forests

To understand the far-reaching implications of the agreement, zoom in to the primal forests of Indonesia, some of the richest and most threatened in the world.

Conservancy scientist Erik Meijaard has spent the last 14 years here studying the forest’s most famous residents: orangutans.

“Nearly 5 million acres of forest is cleared in Indonesia annually, directly or indirectly killing about 3,000 orangutans,” says Meijaard.

“But ultimately, we’re studying orangutans to help us improve our efforts to save entire forest ecosystems for the benefit of people as well as nature.”

How do people benefit?

  • First, because forests provide local communities with livelihoods, food, clean water and protection from floods and erosion. An estimated one billion impoverished people worldwide rely on forest resources.
  • Deforestation is also intimately linked with climate change. It accounts for 80 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions — more than any other country — making Indonesia the third largest contributor to climate change after the United States and China.
  • Finally, shutting out illegal logging operations will ultimately mean healthier economies in Indonesia and other timber producing countries. Indonesia alone loses an estimated $3.7 billion to illegal logging each year—which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of Indonesia's timber exports. It will also mean more access to sustainable jobs and resources for local people.
Buying Power: The United States

An estimated 10 percent of wood imports coming into the United States are of illegal or suspicious origins. And few buyers know to look for products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been legally and sustainably sourced.

But progress is being made. The agreement between the United States and China has been coupled with recent Congressional legislation that makes the U.S. the only country in the world with a total import ban on illegally harvested wood — putting more pressure on corporations and their suppliers to know the origins of their products.

“The new agreement between China and the United States means we’re gaining momentum,” insists Hurd.

“We all have to use the power we have to do the right thing — from the highest levels of government to the shopper who looks for an FSC label before buying a bookshelf.”

Facts on Illegal Logging Worldwide
  • Each year, approximately 32 million acres of natural forest worldwide — an area the size of Florida — are razed and converted to agriculture, development or to supply the exploding global market for wood products.
  • Much of this deforestation is illegal — destroying ecosystems and robbing communities of jobs, food and other resources.

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