Saving the Rainforest: Purchasing Wood Products
Written by Gerald R. Urquhart Ph.D., Michigan State University

Tropical timber that is used in products "consumed" in the United States and Europe can be either a cause of deforestation or a way to preserve tropical rainforests. The difference depends on may factors, such as how the forest is cut and the use of land after cutting. When you go to the store to buy a nice piece of wood furniture, do you know where it is coming from?
 
Wood from tropical trees is used in a variety of ways. Furniture is the most obvious, but hardwood flooring, boat fixtures, ornamental wood pieces (such as those found on flyfishing rods), and other wood products all may use tropical tree species. Look at labels and try to find out where the wood came from. Consider the use of the wood you are buying. Do you really need something made from Mahogany or Malaysian Hardwoods or would a Maple, Oak, or Pine product work just as well? If you cannot determine where a wood product came from and do not know how it was harvested (cut down), do not buy it!
 

Harvesting Tropical Trees
Tropical forests in Central and South America and Africa are often harvested by a practice called Selective Logging. In Southeast Asia, more of the species have value so the forest is clearcut (meaning all trees are cut down). Selective logging, if done correctly, minimally damages the rainforest and the forest grows back quickly. Native species wood products from Central and South America often are harvested

 

Reforestation and Plantations
Plantation forestry is a practice often said to be the way to grow trees in the tropics and harvest the wood without environmental damage. Although people call it "reforestation," it is not so unless the forest is reforested with species that belong in the area. For example, much of the "reforestation" in Costa Rica is done with Teak, a species that originated in India and is of little or no use to the wildlife found there. Planting Teak in Central and South America--where it is not native--is in many ways no more reforestation than planting a cornfield.

In the picture here, a scientist is growing a Mahogany seedling to plant back in the forests where Mahogany is native and belongs. When other native species are included so you don't have a single-species "forest," this is the proper type of reforestation. During the time the trees are growing, the species that need them to survive will have use of them, and then some can be cut for making things people need.

 

Is it always wrong to buy wood products from tropical trees? No. But when buying something from tropical woods, educate yourself as a consumer. Many stores are selling Teak from Costa Rican plantations and claiming it is part of reforesting the rainforest. This is far from the truth.

A lot of the wood products available today come from Southeast Asia. Because SE Asian rainforests are being very destructively clearcut to obtain these woods, you should reconsider any purchases of any products from these woods. Much of the cheap solid wood furniture available today is from these tree species, as are many of the wood picture frames. Look at the "Made in..." label, and if it says Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Thailand, or any other Southeast Asian country, you can be pretty certain the wood came from destroying a rainforest area.

 

What about wood products from North America, Europe, and Northern Asia?
Well, it depends. Old Growth wood is something to avoid. Old Growth forests are ancient forests that have not been significantly altered by humans for a long time (centuries and beyond). It is something to treasure, especially in wealthy nations where we have the economic resources available to protect it and develop alternatives. I do not want my children to grow up and ask where all the old trees are, and I imagine you don't either.

 

Places to look for more information:

SmartWood.org is an excellent organization that promotes knowledgeable decisions about purchasing and certification of the forestry practices as environmentally appropriate. The Rainforest Action Network and several other organizations that have proposed some excellent Alternatives to Old Growth.

Below is a list of some of the most common commercially-used hardwoods native to the main rainforest regions of the world. Buying native wood products promotes forestry practices that preserve or recreate native rainforests. Remember that there are thousands of species native to each of these regions, and many more than are listed here are commercially used to a lesser extent.

 
Native Central and South American Rainforest Species Native African Rainforest Species Native Southeast Asian Rainforest Species*

Mahogany (Sweitinia spp.)
Spanish Cedar (Cedrella spp.)
Cedro Macho (Carapa guianensis)
Rosewood and Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa)
Purpleheart (Peltogyne purpurea)
Kingwood
Cedro Espina (Pochote [Bombacopsis] spinosa)
Tulipwood
Laurel (Cordia alliodora)
Guyacan (Tabebuia chrysantha)
Roble (Tabebuia rosea)
Bocote
Coyote
Palado
Guapinol (Hymenaea courbaril)

Cativo (Prioria copaifera)

Bubinga
Ebony
Zebra
Pink Ivory

 

 

 

Malaysian Maple (often just called Maple, but look at where it comes from--true Maple does not come from Southeast Asia)
Teak (India and SE Asia, Tectona grandis)**

*Most woods labeled as made in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Java, Borneo are from Southeast Asian rainforests and were obtained by clearcutting.

**Teak is farmed in plantations in SE Asia, where it is a native species and an ecologically appropriate way to reforest, although it is typically in monocultures and not the poly cultures that promote ecosystem functioning.

 

Copyright 1997-2002 Gerald R. Urquhart. For information on using this website in your classroom (which is free and highly encouraged), please contact Dr. Urquhart by email, urquhart@msu.edu. Also, please send any comments or corrections to Dr. Urquhart.