Trading in Human Lives

Trading in Human Lives

Timber cutting has become one of the world’s foremost threats to indigenous people and the environment. Editorial for Building for a Future, date unknown.

This issue describes a trade whose ethics have evaporated. Around the world tropical timber cutting is becoming the driving force of deforestation, dispossessing forest people from their homes and destroying the most diverse environments on earth.

Once a minor cause of forest loss, timber cutting is now dominated by the economics of exhaustion. Already, in several parts of the tropics, loggers have consumed all the wood available to them and reinvested in other industries. Now, on the new frontiers, the cutting is characterised by extraordinary haste and carelessness: the damage caused is out of all proportion to the amount of wood removed.

The political influence of many timber companies renders them almost immune to attempts to restrain them. In both the Malaysian state of Sarawak and the southern Brazilian Amazon the biggest companies are owned by politicians. Their power allows them to do what they like to both the forests and the people who live there.

In Sarawak the indigenous people, unable to make their voices heard by conventional means, have built blockades across the logging tracks and confiscated the cutters’ equipment in an attempt to protect their forests. They have been imprisoned, beaten up and forcibly rehoused for their impertinence. In Zaire the Mbuti – the famous “Forest People” – are being coerced, with the help of the timber cutters, into leaving the forest. In Brazil posses are being sent into forests ahead of the loggers to eliminate Indians the companies regard as a threat to their operations. In the Philippines the Igorot people are being bombed by the air force as they try to defend their last forests from logging companies owned by the military.

The immediate human and environmental effects of logging are dwarfed by the developments it gives rise to. Timber is now the means by which new frontiers are formed in South East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Farmers and ranchers follow the cutters up the roads they build, and use the money logging generates to clear the remainder of the forest.

The arguments for an embargo of much of the timber coming from these regions appear to be overwhelming. The forests are being laid waste and their people disposed of so that we can have the most fatuous fripperies: lavatory seats and lavatory brush holders, fitted kitchens, bathroom cupboards, louvre doors, towel rails and toothbrush racks. Yet timber traders in Britain appear to be succeeding in their attempts to persuade the government and other potential regulators that the industry should not be restrained.

The trade claims that it is helping to protect the forests: if they were not valued for the timber they produce they would be cleared for agriculture. While this argument may apply to pine plantations in Britain, in the tropics it is simply absurd. Far from protecting the virgin forests, the loggers are cutting them as quickly as their machinery allows; far from preventing the spread of agricultural frontiers, the timber trade is now its motive force.

The British Timber Trade Federation and its members have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to convince consumers that their purchases of timber do not damage the environment. Now some traders have signed an agreement committing them to selling nothing but sustainably produced wood by 1995. Regrettably, few are making any significant moves to ensure that this happens, and it is beginning to look like another hollow public relations exercise. In the meantime, business – the business of obliterating forests and the people who inhabit them – continues as usual.

While timber traders have been able to determine the policies of the British government, the European Commission, the International Tropical Timber Organisation and The Tropical Forestry Action Programme – all of which are supposed to regulate their activities – there are still some possibilities for genuine reform. One is vested in CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – which could be used to restrict the trade in timbers whose exploitation is a threat to their survival. Another is the work of the few pioneers – such as the Ecological Trading Company in Britain – making genuine efforts to harvest timber in ways that help local populations and cause minimal damage to the forest.

But perhaps the greatest hope lies with the people ultimately responsible for what is happening in these far off places: the consumers of timber in countries such as Britain. Despite the rhetoric of the timber trade and the bodies it dominates, ordinary people are gradually waking up to what it really is: an industry with the ethics of the slave trade.