Rainforest fires: the U.S. link

Don't blame it on the small farmers - it's the big boys at work

by Dr. Stephanie Fried and Dr. Stephan Schwartzman


ore of the Earth's surface was ablaze recently than at any pre- vious time in human history. Fires raging in Indonesia blanketed six countries in smoke, damaging human health and causing an international scandal. An even larger smoke cloud covered much of the Brazilian Amazon, where burning was up sharply over 1996 and was possibly the worst on record.

Analysis of satellite data shows that the primary cause of the burning in Indonesia was not, as has been claimed, slashing and burning by the small farmers who have traditionally used fire in a controlled manner to grow their food crops. Rather, research shows that 70 to 90 percent of the fires were set by large, officially sanctioned companies to clear land for timber, oil-palm, and rubber plantations. The irreplaceable tropical forests of Indonesia, and the land rights of their indigenous inhabitants, are being sacrificed to Indonesia's push to supply heavily subsidized plywood and paper mills.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has urged the United States to provide technical assistance and training to help the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and non-government groups monitor violations of environmental law, particularly in Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Irian Jaya, the regions hit hardest by the fires and haze. In discouraging burning, Indonesia must differentiate between traditional judicious use of fire by small farmers and large-scale land clearing by plantation and logging companies. In view of the urgency and magnitude of problems facing Indonesia's forests, the U.S. must strengthen environmental monitoring of currently planned projects aimed at protecting Indonesia's forests.


Amazon burning is up 28%


In the Amazon as well, large ranchers were primarily responsible for the burning. EDF analysis of satellite data shows that burning increased 28 percent from 1996 to 1997. Research in Brazil strongly suggests that for every acre seen burning in satellite images, another acre burns undetected under the forest canopy. Climate researchers calculate that the increased burning is impairing the ability of up to half the entire Amazon rainforest to remain green through the tropical dry season. This might cause the forest to become flammable under only slightly drier conditions, raising the specter of potentially massive conflagrations in a vicious circle of burning and drying. The end of the Amazon forest may be much closer than anyone has ventured to guess.

One reason for the rampant Amazon burning is that, since 1989, Brazil's environmental agency has had no legal authority to enforce environmental law, including the restrictions on forest clearing. A bill in the Brazilian congress that would restore this authority passed the Senate in early 1997, but has been blocked by special interests in the lower house. The World Bank, the U.S., and other nations must examine the new data and reevaluate their support for Brazilian government programs.


Logging a path to your furniture store


Unsound forestry practices in both the Amazon and Indonesia spur tropical deforestation and burning. The international timber trade is the chain that links U.S. consumers mostly unwittingly to unsustainable forestry practices and the destruction of tropical forests. The United States is the number one importer of mahogany, the product most responsible for new deforestation in the Amazon. In addition, about half the imported plywood in the United States is the fruit of Indonesia's rainforest destruction. Unfortunately, wood sold here is not properly labeled, so consumers generally have no way of knowing if their purchases of furniture or lumber are fueling the rainforest fires.

It is critical that the United States give citizens and businesses the information they need to make informed choices. With adequate information, consumers can avoid the wood produced by destroying rainforests and instead help create markets for sustainably produced timber. The labeling of timber and wood products by country of origin and species would provide this information the essential first step toward harnessing market forces for the sustainability of the forests.

Consumer and citizen efforts against global deforestation in the United States and Europe have already led to important steps, including a mahogany moratorium in Brazil, a World Bank policy prohibiting loans for logging in primary tropical forests, and several institutional and governmental projects aimed at developing methods of sustainable forestry. Unfortunately, the lack of labeling of wood and wood products hampers the boycott and efforts to promote sustainable forestry.

Informed consumers could become the rainforests' best friend. The single most cost-effective step the United States can take today for the preservation of the world's forests is to label all timber and wood products by country of origin and species. This simple information would allow consumers in the world's largest timber market to use their power to choose.

More detailed information on timber labeling is available in an EDF report, Global Deforestation, Timber, and the Struggle for Sustainability: Making the Label Stick, by Stephan Schwartzman and Molly Kingston. To order, send $10 to EDF Publications, c/o the Washington office, or call 800-684-3322.

Dr. Stephanie Fried and Dr. Stephan Schwartzman are scientists with EDF's International Program. Reprinted from EDF Letter, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January 1998. EDF Membership, (800) 684-3322. www.edf.org; 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010.