Rainforests in Texas
By Karen Heikkla
February 1992; pages 6, 12; Volume 3, No. 3
The World Resources Institute reports that a billion people are "periodically disrupted by flooding, fuel wood shortages, soil and water degradation, and reduced agricultural production caused directly or indirectly by the loss of tropical forest cover." Tropical rainforest is currently vanishing at a rate of 35.2 million acres, and an estimated 10,000 species disappear each year. Furthermore, the World Bank estimates that about 200 million people depend on the tropical forests for their livelihoods.
What part does Austin play in the global picture? Ask any carpenter or general contractor. The rainforest is in Austin. It's in the furniture, new homes, office buildings and warehouses which distribute it all over Texas.
The Rainforest Comes to Austin
One of the fancier displays is at the law offices of Brown, Maroney and Oaks Hartline at 111 Congress, which showcases custom cut Honduran Mahogany on three floors. A status symbol in the U.S., Honduran or tropical American Mahogany is a premiere hardwood now scarce in Mexico, Central and Southern America. For years, loggers cut, milled and exported the wood, for use in cabinets, fine furniture, and interior trim. Currently identified as an endangered species by the Convention on Endangered Species, the governments of Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Dominica have banned further exports. However, governments in Africa and the Philippines continue to rely upon the revenue from hardwood exports.
Frank Paxton Lumber Co. is one of the companies that supply rainforest woods in the Austin area. Others may also, but many managers are reticent about discussing the issue. The catalogue of "Paxton Beautiful Woods" describes 13 imported hardwoods, of which five have been listed as endangered or in need of conservation by the Food and Agricultural Organization. Locating in Austin four years ago, Paxton is a national corporation with thirteen outlets across the country. The Annual report of 1988 extolls the virtues of rainforest importation.
"In 1987-88 Paxton lumber division generated $82.4 million in sales and distributed more hardwood lumber than any other company in America, working with more than 100 species of native and exotic beautiful woods." The company primarily sells woods for custom cabinetry and for "prestigious fixtures" in banks, law firms, churches and other institutions.
In 1990 Paxton was acquired by the privately held Jeld-Wen Inc., a trim manufacturer with sales of $250 million. Under the new ownership, Paxton has increased sales to $107.6 million by 1991, according to Ward's Business Directory. In 1990, Paxton began to use international fine woods brokers - including Mitsui and Co., listed by Rainforest Action Network as an importer and distributor of large volumes of tropical rainforest.
Mitsui and Co. is one of Japan's largest traders, trailing Mitsubishi as number one. Trading companies undertake operations around the world, procuring and selling lumber in all sectors of the market. The Economist has called the trading companies "the spiders at the centre of Japan's global economic effort, acting as intermediaries for half the country's exports and two-thirds of its imports. They form a kind of commercial diplomatic corps, maintaining a presence in out-of-the-way places."
Rainforest Action Network has said that Mitsui is currently "involved in unsustainable forestry operations" in several regions. Polemicist asked Larry Cook, manager of Frank Paxton Lumber Co. in Austin, if his company knows whether the rainforests from which they get their woods are managed in a sustainable fashion. He said that they were, and also said that they are managed by the governments of the countries from which they come.
However, the conservative UN-sponsored International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) wrote, in a recent study, that "truly sustainable timber operations can be found in less than one-eighth of one percent of rainforest lands." The ITTO, formed in 1986 to attack the problem through the logging industry itself, is made up of representatives from 19 timber producing countries and 25 consumer countries.
Driven By Debt: Producer Nations in the Nineties
Though a few experiments in sustainable forestry have sprung up in the last few years, most notably in some sawmills in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Peru, economic conditions and politics mitigate against their success, according to the World Rainforest Movement.
Most rainforests are in poor countries. Poor landless people rely on forest products for heat and building materials, and clear land to farm if they can. Some governments have granted forest land to landless peasants, requiring that they clear the land in order to claim their section. Others, burdened with huge debts to multinational corporations and international banks, cash in on timber products as one of their few options, and in practice ignore scientific logging procedures and quotas.
Thailand is a prime example. The devastating flood of November 1988, which washed away villages in southern Thailand and buried people in mud and logs, left 350 people dead. The Royal Forestry Department fixed the blame squarely on decades of forest destruction. "The forest cover shrank from 66% in 1950 to a little over 29% in 1985," it reported. Thailand is now an importer of timber, not an exporter.
The Far Eastern Economic Review found that the public outcry for a national ban on logging, although loud, failed to produce results. "The enormous vested interests associated with the timber industry explain why the government stopped short of doing this. At least three ministers in the current cabinet are involved in timber-related business while a large number of MPs are understood to be bankrolled by provincial timber interests."
In the state of Sarawak in Malaysia, government and industry collaborate to raise the rainforest faster than in any other area. In 1972, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimated 8.5 million cubic meters of wood could be safely removed each year without destruction of the forest. By 1989, Sarawak was churning out 15.34 million cubic meters. An ITTO report states that "if the frenetic pace of annual logging continues all primary forests open for logging will have been harvested in 11 years."
The government appears uninterested in such predictions. James Wong, the state's tourism and environmental minister, owns three large timber concessions. When asked by the UK Economist about the risk of reducing the rain cycle if the forests are cut, he replied "We get too much rain in Sarawak - it stops me playing golf."
Harrison Ngau, of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, told the L.A. Times in March of 1990 that the rainforest people have lived in communal loghouses as subsistence farmers for centuries. The land has been considered theirs through government policies known as "ceremony rights."
But logging changed all that. The state has reclassified "customary rights" claims and people learn of it when the bulldozers arrive. Rather than move quietly from their homes, the Indians of Sarawak have blocked logging roads and demanded their rights.
The Sarawak government responded by passing a law that makes "obstruction of logging routes" a criminal offence, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 1990. "More than 200 natives have been arrested for violating it," said a native representative at an ITTO meeting in Japan. RAN reports that Sarawak currently logs the region 24 hours a day.
Consumer Nations: A Death Grip on Luxury
In May of 1990 the ITTO produced an international agreement that would restrict logging to forest-development areas around the world. However, The Far Eastern Economic Review in June 1990 reports that consumer nations stand in the way of progress. "It is ironic and unfortunate," said one European delegate, "that producer countries are the ones pushing for a development program, while the Americans and the British - where the media campaign against tropical forest logging is the loudest - are trying to slow it down."
According to the Review, some consumer nations "led by the U.S. delegation, were reluctant to agree to a target date for regulated forest development because of a worry that this would be viewed as a precedent affecting American positions at other environmental forums." The U.S. also expressed concern that a target date would increase demands from the producer nations for financial support for conservation. As it stands, "timber product prices need to be increased to reflect their replacement cost rather than their extraction costs and create financial incentives for conservation."
While the international coalitions of government and industry may be unable and unwilling to enforce serious regulations, the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP) hopes to spearhead a new initiative. It held its first public gathering in November of 1991.
Bringing together woodworkers, ecologists, representatives from the furniture industry and other delegates from around the world, they concluded that traditionally woodworkers have been a part of the problem. They look for the cheapest deal that doesn't pay enough for reforestation, and exploit a few species, which ultimately destroys 75% of the forest in which those species grow.
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has published a booklet, the Wood User's Guide, which suggests non-tropical woods for use in specific types of construction and gives resources for ecologically minded suppliers. RAN also spearheads an ongoing boycott of imported tropical woods, making exception only for those that come from sustainable logging operations.
The State of Arizona has banned the use of tropical timber in public works. San Francisco, Santa Monica, Baltimore and Bellingham have done the same, and other cities are now developing similar policies. In Europe, 450 German Town Councils have banned tropical timber, and 90% of local councils in the Netherlands joined the boycott. Of these, 15 also ban its use by local business operating within the city limits.
Paxton manager Larry Cook did not know anything about the boycott. "I don't think it's possible to impose a world-wide ban," he said.
But an Austin ban? Maybe.