Tropical forest management: Incentives for conservation, deterrents for destruction

By Alex Karney
Tropical forests hold a sort of mystique for most of us – images of intrepid explorers blazing through dense vegetation and meeting either cute, bizarre, or dangerous exotic creatures come to mind, from kids movies like Tarzan and the Jungle Book to intense films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. I had the chance to work in Honduras with the non-profits Fundación Madera Verde and GreenWood from June 2010 until December 2011. Honduras is located on the strip of land (isthmus) that separates North and South America, and has an unusual richness of plants and animals, as part of the Mesoamerican “biodiversity hotspot”. However, the forests here are not doing well – more than 10% were lost from 2005-2010, and the socio-political situation makes environmental regulation difficult at all levels. The country is a primary transit point for cocaine, boasts the world’s highest murder rate (my mother was THRILLED to find this out), and is flirting with failed-state status. What can be done?
A combination of incentives for conservation and deterrents for destruction is the most effective way I’ve seen to keep the forests in good condition while meeting the practical needs of local people. With GreenWood and Madera Verde, my first few months were a steep learning curve as I struggled to learn Spanish and understand daily operations, but I soon began to appreciate their effectiveness in creating positive incentives for conservation and was excited to participate. We work to train artisans to sustainably extract, produce, and market a variety of forest products, to allow communities to earn more by keeping their forests intact than by destroying them.  This takes many forms, such as establishing furniture workshops with simple equipment and legally-sourced wood, to marketing non-timber forest products, to extracting, cutting, and selling legally-sourced mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) pieces for guitar parts. In the latter case, the communities have reinvested earnings to develop small-scale hydroelectric projects and schools.

Artisan Omar Betanzo making a chair leg in La Ceiba, Honduras. July 2010.

Artisan Mateo Lopez making hat out of “mimbre” (“wicker”) in Mezapita, Honduras. June 2011.

However, incentives don’t help much if other people can simply come in and destroy the forests, and the lack of deterrents has been the greatest problem we’ve faced in the past year. For example, the legal harvest area of Copen lost 99 hectares to illegal forest destruction by ranchers in 2010, which was documented by myself, a Honduran forest technician, and variety of community members in May 2011. A detailed report was submitted to the government shortly afterwards and pressure for action applied from a number of local, national and international sources, but nothing has yet been done. Groups like GreenWood and Fundacion Madera Verde will continue to do everything they can to make sure the issue is addressed, but the most ardent and—in many respects—the most effective defenders of the forest are the community members themselves.

Low-impact directional felling in Copén, Sanguijuelosa Forest, November 2011.

Illegal clearing and house in Copén legal management area, Sanguijuelosa forest. May 2011.

However, even if the invaders are stopped and expelled, the widespread problem of illegal logging remains. One effective way to verify legal provenance is through a GPS-based, chain-of-custody system that was developed by Helveta LLC in England and implemented by Madera Verde and GreenWood to track their mahogany guitar-parts from forest to client. Every sawn piece of wood is tagged with a plastic barcode, which accesses a suite of information logged into a hand-held computer. Over the past year, we’ve expanded this initiative through a collaboration with the United States Forest Service and New Mexico State University to develop a genetic database of mahogany DNA. Leaf and wood samples were collected from 19 different trees in 3 different communities, which are now being analyzed.  Almost like a crime show, genetic differences between mahogany trees from separate areas (say, Honduras and Brazil, or a protected area and a legal logging concession) can be identified in DNA-tests. Customs officials could therefore test suspicious shipments and refer to a genetic database to see whether false claims are being made on trade documents, and confiscate shipments if needed. Such tools would make it risky for illegal loggers or unscrupulous brokers to sell their wood, and allow legal wood producers to gain a greater share of a limited market.
Forest conservation in the tropics is a complex creature: sometimes negative controls are needed to protect important areas, but unless communities are able to tangibly benefit from the forest, purely-negative restraints are unlikely to succeed over the long haul.