Policies aimed at protecting tropical forests may lead to increased deforestation and timber production, according to new research. Rising international demand for timber, foreign investment and other factors have encouraged governments and corporations to adopt sustainable forest management practices, but it seems they may have unexpected negative consequences.
Jodi Brandt, an assistant professor at Boise State University and former postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, and her colleagues conducted two studies to examined deforestation rates and sustainable forestry policies in the Congo and globally. The Congo Basin holds the second-largest intact tropical forests in the world, representing 25 percent of the carbon stored in tropical forests. Western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, and bonobos are among the endangered species unique to the region. The Congo passed sustainable forestry laws in 2000.
The first study, which was published last year in Environmental Research Letters, found that European companies had the highest core and edge deforestation rates in the Congo compared to Asian and Congolese companies despite being far more compliant with sustainable forestry policies, suggesting a correlation.
The new study, published in Land Use Policy, directly compared the timber production and deforestation rates in leases that implemented sustainability policies against those that did not. Timber production was higher and more stable in compliant leases – and deforestation rates were up to two times higher – versus in non-compliant leases.
The findings suggest that selective logging spreads out logging activities over larger areas and into interior forests. Evidence also showed that legal timber operations lead to growth in nearby human settlements, increasing human presence in remote, interior forest regions, creating further “indirect deforestation.”
“The global conservation community has invested tremendous resources in sustainable forest management principles and has supported policy changes in its favor,” said Brandt. “But our results suggest caution and highlight a need for more rigorous and systematic scrutiny of commercial logging practices and sustainable forestry policies in tropical forest ecosystems worldwide.
“Human activities often have unintended consequences, so we need to regularly assess, in an unbiased manner, the impacts of our activities and policies. We hope these papers stimulate a conversation and more research about the sustainability of industrial logging not just in the Congo but in other tropical forests around the globe.”
About one billion acres of tropical forests worldwide are managed for timber production, making up more than half of the world’s remaining tropical forests. Forest management plans are used in 46 percent of tropical production forests worldwide and the proportion is increasing. The plans are considered a key tool for climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation.
Reforestation and restoration efforts are alternative options for companies looking to improve their impact on forests. Recent studies also suggest that governments could entrust more land management responsibilities to Indigenous and local communities to promote affordable, effective forest protection.