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Protecting Forests on the Frontier

An April Washington Post article convincingly highlighted how illegal logging is an important problem for the people and economies of developing countries.

The logging frontier has always been a distant place, out of reach of the arm of the law. In fact, the situation that the Post describes is, interestingly, not that different from the situation in the United States a century ago.

What is sometimes overlooked is that illegal logging in remote countries also translates into a problem for the forest industry here in the U.S.

Understandably, the country does not feel responsible for poor practices committed by others in faraway places. Less understandably, it seems insensitive to the fact that so many people often still see the forest industry simply as a handy supplier of goods. Poor practices in remote countries harm the reputation of wood in general, and they can also harm the reputation of honest producers.

The forest industry in developed countries has been slow to react to this problem. It was only a few years ago that the American Forest & Paper Association acknowledged illegal logging as a real and important problem. In this sense, environmental groups and the U.S. government were far ahead of the forest industry.

To address the complexity of the issues, about 15 years ago, WRI helped create the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The purpose of the FSC was to provide forest-product markets with a simple and reliable way to tell good wood from bad wood.

In each timber producing country, FSC convenes a partnership of producers, environmental groups, and social organizations to get them to agree on a standard of good national forest stewardship. Producers that comply with this standard and can prove their compliance to an independent certifier and receive rights to sell their products with an accompanying FSC label.

Nevertheless, markets and importers have been slow to react. While public demand for certification is rising in general, it remains puzzling that consumers—especially U.S. consumers—are not being more demanding and insistent that the wood and paper they are buying originates from good practices.

Such a philosophy can be even more dangerous when applied to imports from countries with weak or corrupt practices, and where government decisions and declarations may not even affect what actually happens in rural areas.

WRI is working on this issue in several ways. Our Global Forest Watch project works with governments to improve their ability to bring order into the logging world. We do this in Central Africa and Indonesia. Surprisingly, governments often do not know the precise boundaries of their logging concessions, or what is happening there. WRI is helping them get better information, often by using satellites to monitor forest activities.

Another effort is to map the risk of poor and illegal practices. In Russia, WRI has convened a partnership of stakeholders in collaboration with FSC and a grassroots organization called SPOK to create the first "risk maps" of Russia. The April 19 kick-off meeting in Petrozavodsk, Russian Karelia gathered participants from the local government; from companies such as Swedwood (IKEA), Stora Enso and Segezha; and from environmental groups. The maps should be ready by the end of 2007 and the mapping approach will be replicated throughout the rest of Russia. These maps will help FSC and other certification systems protect their labels from bad wood, and consumers from buying illegally logged products.

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