Ask the Conservationist

Green Your Furniture

There comes a day when you need to replace that broken table, rickety chair or creaky bed frame. But how to ensure your new purchase is made from a sustainable wood? One reader is in the market for some furniture and wants to know if “parawood” (or rubberwood) is a good green choice.

Read the answer from our Asia-Pacific forest trade expert.

Geoff Dunn of East Greenbush, NY, writes:

I am looking for some furniture, and I wonder if "parawood," from rubber trees, is as environmentally friendly as it is being touted. Do you have any information about this?

Jack Hurd, director of the Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Forest Program, replies:

Thanks for the question, Geoff. It’s a good one, and one that gets to the heart of the Conservancy’s work in the Asia-Pacific region.

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick primer on “parawood” or rubberwood. In recent years, it’s become an increasingly common material used in Asia’s forestry trade. Taken from the Pará rubber tree, this wood is often combined with a hardwood to make a composite material suitable for furniture. Rubber tree plantations are on the rise throughout the region, particularly in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, where plantation owners are planting large stands of the tree en masse to meet surging demand for its primary product—latex.

It takes these trees between 3 and 7 years to mature to the point where they can produce a steady supply of latex, which is the world’s main source of natural rubber. These trees don’t lose productivity until they’re around 30 years old. At that point, the landowner generally farms out the work of clearing the land to external contractors, who harvest the timber and ship it off to Asia’s woodshops.

Rubberwood has a complicated record as far as sustainability is concerned. On the one hand because most stands of Pará trees in the Asia-Pacific region are planted simultaneously, they’re also cleared all at once, leaving vast swaths of the countryside deforested on a temporary basis. However, it can be assumed that in many of the places where rubberwood is harvested, it’s on long-term forestry land. In all likelihood, cleared stands of Pará trees will be replaced with more of the same.

On the other hand, the sector expands with increased demand and high profit margins for latex—which means that new lands are being cleared to make way for new plantations. And in some instances, those cleared lands may include vital patches of tropical rainforest.

So, the challenge for conservationists is to try to steer government regulators and private sector investors to direct expansion of rubber onto lands that are already deforested or degraded, often replacing another agricultural crop. In our ongoing endeavor to make forestry throughout the Asia-Pacific region more sustainable, the Conservancy is working to reform land use practices and encourage more timber harvesters to utilize already-degraded lands.

In the end, Geoff, your best bet to ensure the sustainable pedigree of a wood product is by seeking those that are independent third-party certified. The certification scheme employed by the Forest Stewardship Council is the most widely used measure of sustainability for forest products. Promoting demand for FSC products is a big priority for the Conservancy, so we’re thankful that people like you are paying increased attention to this topic.

Originally posted in April 2011.


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