If a tree falls in the forest

Just imagine if this fell!

Just imagine if this fell!

Is there any way to be certain that it was cut legally? In many ways, that is the challenge for sustainable management of timber, especially in tropical locations. If you have seen this month’s edition of ‘National Geographic,’ you will already have a sense of just difficult it can be to monitor and enforce national and international timber-harvest protocol. Appendix II of CITES is designed to permit international trade in species, provided it does not work against species survival, but how do you promote sustainable use and prevent exploitation?

Species listed on Appendix II require an export permit which is issued after authorities in the exporting country have found that the trade does not negatively impact the survival of the species or its ability to fulfill ecosystem roles. In addition, the specimen must be legally obtained and appropriate arrangements for transport must have been made. Part of the goal here is to control use of the species so that it is sustainable in the long-run. It is also hoped that prices paid by the market will provide incentive for people to pursue legal trade. Does this method work? Well, it appears to depend, in part, on the species. As I mentioned in my last post, as long as there is enough demand, black markets will seek to profit. And one of the biggest questions facing any type of regulated harvest is “What is sustainable?” How do we know where the line between sustainable and degrading is? And how do captive breeding programs play into international trade? Luiselli et al. (2012) looked at the international python trade sourced out of Africa and Asia- because the predominant use for snakes differed between the two regions, there were different impacts on wild populations and habitat. Because pythons coming out of Africa were largely destined for the pet trade and a large part of the demand could be met by snake ranching, the level of trade had been apparently sustainable for 35 years and had even promoted habitat protection. In contrast, since most pythons from Asia are used for their skins, ranching does not provide an adequate economic return and most snakes are wild-caught, putting massive pressure on the populations.

How many different tree species do you see in this picture?

How many different tree species do you see in this picture?

What about when the trade involves trees? One of the big issues here is making sure that illegally harvested trees aren’t laundered for entry into the international market. This is mentioned in the National Geographic article about mahogany, and it’s an issue that has faced a variety of timber-source countries. Starting in 1995, countries in the Neotropics began listing big-leaf mahogany individually in an attempt to separate legal from illegal harvest (Grogan & Barreto 2005); by 2000 Costa Rica, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and Peru had all put the tree on their individual Appendix III lists (which means that any mahogany coming from them should have an export permit). When Brazil banned mahogany harvesting in 2001 in response to fraud within the system, illegal logging in Peru increased to meet demand. Because illegally-sourced mahogany continued to enter the market despite multiple Appendix III listings, mahogany was officially listed in Appendix II in 2003. Even with Appendix II listing, there continue to be problems with illegal logging and trade of mahogany (Tomaselli & Hirakuri 2008). Does this mean that allowing regulated trade is ineffective? Not really, although it means that there are still loopholes the black market can exploit. Partly as a result of a 2006 Free-Trade Agreement that the US signed with Peru, the Peruvian government instituted a new Forest Law in 2008 and worked to enact stricter controls for timber harvest (Tomaselli & Hirakuri 2008). Since the US consumes around 80% of mahogany exports (Blundell 2007), buyers here have both substantial power in effecting change and considerable responsibility to make good source decisions.

What can people outside of the source-nations do to ensure international trade is legitimate? The most important thing is to pay attention to where products, plants, and animals come from– this means asking lots of questions, but that is sometimes the only way to convey how important that information is to you. Typically, if someone can tell you the source of the fish or orchid or plywood, it’s because that information is important to them and they are hoping you will ask. If they can’t answer your questions, that may be an important sign as well. Obviously, it can be difficult to trace every animal or plant product, but it’s important to try, and there are several systems in place to help facilitate communication- FSC certification for wood products is a good sign, and some harvesters are focusing on what is called ‘chain-of-custody’ tracking for individual logs so that a clear record for how and where each was harvested and processed exists. (And if you would like to get regular updates about the tropical timber industry, you can sign up for ITTO’s newsletter.) When it comes to the pet trade, ask the vendor where the animals came from and do your own research on the status of wild populations for the species. Animal breeders who are committed to the species and breeds they work with tend to have records that go back generations. And it’s important to be a good market for sustainable plant and animal harvests– it may take a bit more effort to find sustainable sources, and it may mean considering alternative species (for example, a tropical tree species that is less well-known), but often the only way to convince suppliers to continue with sustainable efforts is to provide a responsive and rewarding market. So we all have a part to play in the global plant and animal trade.

Works cited:

Blundell, AG. 2007. Implementing CITES regulations for timber. Ecological Applications 17: 323-330.

Grogan, J. and P. Barreto. 2005. Big-leaf mahogany on CITES Appendix II: big challenge, big opportunity. Conservation Biology 19: 973-976.

Luiselli, L., Bonnet, X., Rocco, M. and G. Amori. 2012. Conservation implications of rapid shifts in the trade of wild African and Asian pythons. Biotropica 44: 569-573.

Tomaselli, I. and SR. Hirakuri. 2008. Converting mahogany. ITTO Tropical Forest Update 18: 12-15.