ATIBT's response to the article "Cut less and let rest: a new management of tropical forests is needed”


ATIBT responds to an article published in The Conversation on September 2, 2021.

In Central Africa, 31 million hectares of forest have a management plan. Managed concessions cover 56% of the total area of production forests in this region. The implementation of management plans is a defense against deforestation, more than 90% of which is linked to the growth of agriculture.

The reconstitution of exploitable wood stocks between two harvesting passages is a complex challenge linked to the history and dynamics of these forests. It is also highly variable from one tropical region to another and according to forest types and species. A recent article published in The Conversation1 concludes "that timber harvesting rules do not allow for long-term sustainable recovery of the stock of timber harvested from these ecosystems". The author of this article recommends reducing logging intensity and increasing rotation times because, in his opinion, the current management of dense rainforests is not sustainable in the long term. While we agree with the observation that the wood stock of key species is not fully replenished between two logging operations, we feel it is important to clearly formulate the problem facing forest managers and to propose realistic solutions adapted to Central Africa.

The International Tropical Timber Technical Association (ATIBT) was founded in 1951 at the request of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Serving the "tropical timber" sector, from the forest to the final consumer, the association plays a leading role in the implementation of international projects dedicated to the sustainable and responsible management of tropical forests. It also positions itself as one of the best technical and scientific referents of the tropical wood resource. Alongside European actors of the "African tropical timber" sector, ATIBT gathers States (Republic of Congo, Republic of Ivory Coast, Central African Republic), NGOs (FSC, PEFC, WRI, WCS, WWF), research institutes and consultancies, and large companies which, in order to join the association, must be certified.

ATIBT recalls the experience that the tropical forest-wood sector has acquired over several decades to ensure the legality and sustainability of its activities and wood products, while avoiding deforestation.  ATIBT has been working for more than 20 years for the management of production forests, the definition and implementation of development and management principles. It is also involved in scientific projects such as DynAfFor2, which aims to improve the implementation of sustainable management of tropical forests. The lessons learned allow us to formulate a number of recommendations, which will be published at the end of 2021. Thus, ATIBT is in a position to propose appropriate solutions to meet the challenge of the sustainability of a value chain for timber from natural production forests in Central Africa.

Forest management aims at maintaining the functions of the natural forest ecosystem. In particular, tropical rainforests play an essential role in regulating the global climate thanks to the carbon they store. They are home to exceptional biodiversity and regulate water regimes. They provide products to local populations for whom they have a major cultural value. Forest management in Central Africa has been designed to preserve these functions. Certification guarantees the legality of logging operations and in particular the proper implementation of forest management plans. Forest management implemented according to the legal framework in Central Africa makes it possible to confer an economic value to the forest, ensures the maintenance of ecosystem goods and services, the rights and needs of local communities and indigenous peoples, and the preservation of conservation values and forest cover. It also helps to prevent deforestation, avoiding the conversion of the forest to other uses, such as agricultural land or mining.

However, management does not seek to reconstitute an identical forest stand in its composition between two harvesting passages. In particular, the observation of a decrease in the availability of species mainly exploited during the first harvest (Durrieu de Madron L. and Forni E, 20043) remains a concern for the forest manager and for the owner, the State, as it puts forward a risk on the State's revenues and on the sustainability of the sector.

The solution to this challenge proposed by The Conversation article is not a solution at all: reducing timber harvesting would be totally counterproductive because, far from ensuring economic sustainability, it would put the entire industry at risk in the very short term. It could even call into question the preservation of natural forests, increasing the risks of conversion to non-forest uses.

In a market subject to the law of supply and demand, "setting a higher price for timber from natural forests than from plantations" is not feasible either and has already shown its limits: the market does not pay enough for timber from Central Africa's natural forests and does not pay for the additional production costs of timber certified according to the various existing standards. To guarantee economic profitability for forest management, several solutions other than "cut less and let rest" should be considered.

One of these solutions lies, in Central Africa, in increasing the harvest per hectare (i.e. "cut more") but by diversifying the species.  Formal removals in Central Africa are only about 0.15 m3/ha/year on average, and can be increased in accordance with the principles of good forest management. This increase will make it possible to lower production costs per m3 of timber (notably road construction and management costs). For forests dominated by Okoumé or Ayous, heliophilic species that need large openings to regenerate, only a very large increase would allow regeneration. This is the case for the majority of the species currently exploited4. Then a longer rotation period than the current ones (most often 25 or 30 years) would be necessary for the trees to become exploitable. The sustainable solution for these Central African forests would therefore be: "cut much more, on smaller annual surfaces allowing a longer rotation". Thus, the implementation of stand silviculture is essential to ensure the regeneration of commercial species. The silvicultural practices remain to be defined on the basis of a continuation of the tests engaged during the last decades. The deployment of this large-scale silviculture by the private sector is hampered by the land tenure system (concession contracts) and unfair competition from the informal sector.

Increasing harvesting intensity in heterogeneous forests requires diversification of species harvesting.  In the second rotation, the harvesting of new species will have to compensate for the decrease in volume of species harvested in the first rotation. Creating profitable markets for these other species is one of the main challenges facing forest managers and operators today. This process requires industrial innovation and marketing, but also improvements in infrastructure and governance (role of the State).

Some progress has been made in recent years. In Gabon, for example, the industrial development since 2010 has made it possible to use lower quality Okoumé. Also, some operatord have been able to develop the market for new species. We note that the price of certain species has changed considerably in 30 years. At that time, for example, Tali was not worth the same price as today, the difference being that the Vietnamese industry "discovered" this species. Can other species experience the same evolution?

To consolidate the economic profitability of forest management, one solution is to diversify the sources of income, in particular through payments for the contribution to the fight against climate change or payments for other environmental services (PES). This solution will make it possible to value not only the timber from the concessions, but also to remunerate the other services that the manager protects (conservation of sites rich in biodiversity and/or endemic species, protection of waterways and wildlife). Pilot projects are currently being set up to identify indicators and agree on independent and affordable monitoring methods that can be used to set up PES for the good management of forest concessions, which can be attested by certification.

Investment by the private sector and the international community in maintaining production capacity over the long term, as well as the development of new revenues, is essential to preserve large forest areas. At the same time, national investments are needed to improve infrastructure and lower port costs, which will not only increase economic activity in Central African countries, but also make the forest-wood sector more profitable.

Paris, October 8, 2021

Note written with the contribution of the ATIBT Forest-Industry Commission

[1] Sist Plinio, « Couper moins et laisser reposer : une nouvelle gestion des forêts tropicales s’impose », The Conversation, 2021.
[2] Ce projet associe des acteurs public et privés, des institutions de recherche d’Europe et d’Afrique Centrale. / This project associates public and private actors, research institutions from Europe and Central Africa.
[3] Durrieu de Madron Luc et Forni Eric, « Aménagement forestier dans l'Est du Cameroun. Structure du peuplement et périodicité d'exploitation », Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, n°254, 1997, pp 39-50.
[4] Cf. Karsenty Alain, « Is sustainable logging possible in Africa’s dense forest? », Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, n°336, 2018, pp 3-5.