Amazon Logging: Practice and Policy

In the Amazon basin, only a few species contain valuable timber, much less than many areas of the world. When land is cleared, settlers will sell the valuable timber and burn the remains to enrich the soil. In forests managed for continuous logging, however, logging areas are managed on rotations, where specific parcels can be selectively cut every 20-40 years. Most logging activity is concentrated along highways and major rivers, such as near the river port of Pucallpa in Peru and Santarém in Brazil. Logging also follows highways construction, along roads such as the Trans-Amazon in the north, the soy highway in Mato Grosso, and the newly completed inter-oceanic highway between Brazil and southern Peru in the state of Madre de Dios.

In the Brazilian Amazon, logging operations have often occurred on forest land claimed by ranchers and speculators. In these cases, landowners would sell extraction rights to loggers, using the revenues to finance conversion to cattle ranching. Logging on these private lands is difficult to regulate; the forest code requires that Amazon properties maintain 80% of their land in forest cover (read more about Brazil policies on the Brazil – governance page). Significant amounts of logging also occur on indigenous and community forest lands.

Some logging in the Amazon basin functions on a concessions system, where a logging company is granted production rights on public land for a fee. These systems often manage forests by dividing harvest areas into yearly rotations, and placing a limit on the minimum diameter that can be harvested, often around 50 cm diameter. In the Amazon basin, Brazil and Peru have recently reformed concessions to encourage long term, sustainable yield managed by environment and forest ministries. However, logging in areas with unclear tenure often results in unsustainable practices, as loggers have little incentive to manage the land for long term. Brazil’s concession policy of 2000 was regarded by many as unprofitable and risky for logging companies, especially in a climate of widespread illegal harvest. Others contend that regulations favor large companies at the expense of local landowners, as the permitting process can be long, costly, and require paperwork in distant provincial capitals. In 2010, Brazil had leased a very small amount of private concession forest, and instead announced plans to sell large forest areas.

The most valuable timber species in the Amazon basin is mahogany (Sweitenia macrophylla), a timber highly valued for its color and quality. A single tree can sell for more thousands of dollars in a US market, and the US has traditionally been the largest mahogany market. In 2001, Brazil banned mahogany trade following allegations of illegal activity. Following this, mahogany was listed in 2003 as CITES II, an international trade regulation that restricts trade so that it does not harm the ecosystem where the species is harvested. Following the CITES listing and mahogany ban in Brazil, illegal trade shifted to other countries with weaker forest governance, like Peru. In 2007-2008, Peru signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and stipulations of the trade treaty supported increased enforcement of trade of mahogany and other CITES listed timber species. Nevertheless, illegal logging has continued in Peru and has been the subject of several investigative analyses.

Besides mahogany, a small percentage of total wood production from the Amazon is traded on international markets. Amazon wood is often used domestically for building material; plantation wood is more likely to be used for charcoal or exported as pulp. However, these figures obscure the fact that the majority of exports are thought to be illegal. In Peru and Brazil, several reports have disclosed massive volumes of illegally traded wood. In Brazil, the Brazilian Environmental Authority (IBAMA) monitors logging permits and trade, and frequently intercepts illegal shipments. Certification programs such as FSC and PEFC, as well as legality verification laws such as the US Lacey Act and the FLEGT of Europe seek to ensure minimum standards and reward well managed forest operations – read more on the forest certification page.   

Unsustainable logging causes significant ecological damage to the Amazon forests. Selective logging that is poorly practiced can cause significant damage on surrounding trees, lianas, and epiphytes. Gaps caused by tree felling can open space for light demanding trees but have also been found to increase rates of edge effects, plant disease, and fire. Satellite imagery has discovered significant levels of overall selective logging, previously unregistered in country deforestation maps. Selectively logged areas do not necessarily lead to eventual forest clearing, but still represent a significant source of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. However, many conservation groups advocate sustainable logging in the Amazon as a means to maintain standing forest and prevent forest conversion to soy or cattle ranching. Reduced impact logging, certified forestry, and logging in coordination with agroforestry, collection of non-timber forest products, or payments for environmental services are management systems that attempt to combine conservation with economic activity. 


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