Dinosaur Foresters

The Timber Trade Federation is trying to turn back the clock on forest protection

The Timber Trade Federation is trying to turn back the clock on forest protection

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, some time in 1998

A few years ago, a friend of mine was shopping in a DIY superstore, when he noticed an indisputable lie. “This Brazilian mahogany”, a sign in the shop announced, “is sustainably produced in well-managed forests. Its extraction does no harm to either the rainforests or their people”. Knowing that there wasn’t a single source of sustainable Brazilian mahogany, he asked to see the manager.

The manager immediately began to shout. “It’s sustainable,” he blurted, “because I say it is.” When my friend remonstrated, he was thrown out of the store. He returned the next day with a new notice, identical in size and colour, with which he replaced the original. “On a recent visit to Brazil,” it read, “the manager of this store contracted gonnorhea. He therefore encourages you to buy this timber, whose extraction destroys the rainforests and murders their inhabitants.” The new sign stayed up for days.

Since then, life has moved on. Mahogany loggers are still destroying the rainforest and murdering the indigenous people who try to stop them. Companies are still making bogus claims about the provenence of their wood. But, for people seeking sustainably-produced timber, there need be no further room for doubt. There is, at last, a reliable labelling system, monitored by independent experts, and certified by an organisation called the Forest Stewardship Council.

Suppliers have not been slow to recognise the commercial potential of properly monitored timber. B&Q and Homebase are competing furiously to be the first superstores to supply only FSC-approved wood. Ten million hectares of forest worldwide have already been certified.

So there would seem, at first sight, to be some support for the claims made by the adverts being run by the Timber Trade Federation. A picture of a chainsaw is captioned “In the war against deforestation, this is our strongest weapon … managed timber forests guarantee that the trees are constantly replanted. The only alternative for many forests is to be destroyed by slash and burn agriculture.”

It’s a pleasantly counter-intuitive proposition and, in the forests certified by the FSC, it seems to hold. Recognising that sustainable timber production is more lucrative than any other use to which their lands could be put, people leave the forest standing.

There’s only one problem. The FSC’s efforts are being disrupted by an organisation which has sought both to undermine confidence in the certification process and to replace it with a meaningless code of its own. It has helped, as a result, to ensure that timber cutting, far from saving the world’s forests, remains one of the primary causes of their destruction. The organisation is the Timber Trade Federation, the body which placed the advertisements.

The TTF encourages timber traders not to pursue FSC certification, but instead to apply its own “Environmental Purchasing Policy”, based on “government standards”, which are often far lower than those set by the FSC. In Brazil, for example, government inspectors are under-resourced and cheap to buy. Timber cutters will proudly show you drawerfuls of inspection certificates which they have been given to fill in for themselves.

In response to repeated exposures of such malpractice, the TTF signed an agreement with AIMEX, the Brazilian trade body whose members supply nearly all of Britain’s mahogany. AIMEX promised that all the timber it sold would be “extracted strictly in accordance with Brazilian laws”. Soon afterwards, 14 of the 26 Aimex companies were fined for illegal activities such as smashing roads through Indian and biological reserves in order to steal their timber. The TTF dismissed these indiscretions as “minor technical infringements”, and continued to insist that the wood AIMEX supplied came from well-managed sources. Last year, a leaked Brazilian government report revealed that 80 per cent of all the mahogany extracted from the Amazon is illegally felled.

Timber cutting of this kind has precisely the opposite effects to those advertised by the TTF. The loggers batter their way through forests which have never been threatened before. The roads they open attract settlers and ranchers who, by means of the slashing and burning the TTF publicly laments, complete the destruction the timber companies began.

Haughty, mendacious, mouthing the stale mantra of self-regulation, the Timber Trade Federation, like the new director of the CBI, is trapped in the 1980s. We may have moved on, but they cleave to the past. The danger is that, with so much money to spend on promulgating their Cretaceous creeds, they will drag us all back to the antediluvian mire in which they still wallow.