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Here's a good source of news about the latest in rainforest protection

Preservation through Utilization?

The Paradoxes of Rainforest Protection

by William Cumpiano

The founding conference of the Woodworker's Alliance for Rainforest Protection was held at the University of Massachusetts last November. The alliance, or WARP, as it is called, was founded by GUITARMAKER's illustrious editor, in conjuction with other notables in the wood-supply trade, the woodworker's-supply trade, the woodworking media, the forestry-science community and finally, in the limited-production-woodworking-artisan community. Needless to say, the agenda of the weekend was not whether, but HOW tropical hardwoods should be extracted from tropical rainforests. Musical-instrument woodworkers were largely represented in the audience by myself and Grit Laskin, but in the audience you could also find people from all the above-listed groups, plus the local and national media, and a small contingent of local rain-forest-protection activists besides.

The conference activities largely consisted of several panels of experts from fields that studied, utilized or promoted the use of rainforest timber. Each talked in turn, and their presentations invariably came down, time and again, to the same two themes:

* The way to save the rainforests is to manage them, that is, to change them from wild ecosystems that are randomly and carelessly plundered by local inhabitants, into sensitively-harvested forests that thus rendered towards producing a sustained, renewable resource.

* That the significant increase of the selling price of rainforest timber is good, necesary and inevitable, as is the creation of a heightened demand for underutilized species. This increases the economic value of the rain forest, thereby making it senseless for the local populace to squander and destroy it or to raze it for farming and cattle-growing. The call by radical rainforest activists to boycott rainforest timbers, or the propensity of some concerned woodworkers to shift their supply needs to temperate-forest hardwoods was generally regarded as "irresponsible" because, it was reasoned, by reducing the demand for tropical hardwoods, you lead Brazilian loggers into ruin and towards cattle farming. Thus, the argument went, not to use tropical hardwoods is WORSE.

There lay a paradox and a dilemma seeking, in my mind at least, to be resolved. The way to stop the liquidation of this resource was to actually use more of it.

Indeed, I fervently wanted to accept the repeated reassurance of all these worthy and articulate speakers that forestry science and the determined idealism of many sensitized wood-dealers and woodworkers, acting in concert ("the silviculturist and the woodworker must learn to speak the same language") might actually succeed in saving the rainforest by using, and showing others how to use it wisely. The arguments were intelligent and compelling.

But there were disturbing contradictions. The geneticist kept emphasizing how pathetically little we know about the capacity for dwindling populations of tropical hardwood species to regenerate their numbers, and kept calling for more study. The Brazilian forest products technologist said that there exists a tremendous library available of information on the impact of logging on tropical forests, but then later said that very little was known of the exact impact of logging on tropic forests. When I asked him to clarify, he said that "a lot is known, but little is well-known." The Peruvian Tropical Forester admitted to his dislike of the term "sustainable" when referring to forest management, because it was too vague, and ultimately may be undefineable. It seems that it is very, very difficult to verify that a certain management technique results in "sustainability" because this takes study of the specie's progress over considerable spans of time. Yet other speakers uttered the word with confidence, as if the keys to sustainable-yield management were well in hand.

Then, also, was the nagging feeling that, I was not serving my Search For Truth very well by seeking information from "interested" sources. The speakers at the conference all had something in common: it was to their personal advantage that I, and those like me, continue to not only use tropical hardwoods, but to use more and more different species of tropical hardwoods, and to gladly pay more beside--and then to feel good about it, calmed and reassured that I wasn't contributing to the destruction, or even to the diversity-reduction of tropical ecosystems, indeed, that I was contributing to its salvation.

I was unable to attend the final wrap-up of the conference (I had to go back to my shop to cut up some more mahogany to pay the rent). Yet, this was a sensitizing experience, to be sure, and I will be looking towards WARP to further sort out the realities, moralities, and responsibilities of this painful, disturbing issue.


I would like to add some further thoughts to my review of the Woodworker's Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP) founding conference which appeared in a recent issue of GUITARMAKER.

In my review, I referred to a luthiers' dilemma: luthiers are expected to use rare rainforest timbers in their guitars to ensure full market value and customer confidence in their work. But by so doing, they fear (and increasingly, are being accused of) complicity in the depletion and destruction of the great rainforests.

I also pointed out that a recurring theme of the conference was that the use of rainforest timbers (and of timber from "underutilized" species) increases the economic value of the forest. This in turn increases economic pressures towards its management as a renewable, sustainable resource. I mentioned the unease I felt, however, at the fact this seemingly reasonable solution was being advanced largely by people whose own livelihood was tied to the use of more and different species of rainforest timbers. When "disinterested" speakers (usually scientists) spoke, they more or less uniformly said that there simply wasn't enough data to recommend ANY clear choices.

The woodworking industry's management solution is based on the premise that individual human beings are rational, and will act in their best long-range interests when these are persuasively set before them, and will thus act to preserve the Common Wealth for their descendants.

Isn't this is a slim reed onto which to hang the future of one of the world's most crucial ecosystems? Let's look at the record: history is replete with examples of powerful commercial entities gobbling up natural resources, and establishing ever-widening markets for them until they are gone. Their sheer size, wealth and political clout usually overwhelm the efforts of thoughtful individuals working for sensible moderation. Indeed, if W.A.R.P. does succeed in rallying it's members towards a eco-centric course of action, will it matter? Will it bring the huge gobblers to pause for a moment and reflect on the consequences of their despoliation?

That luthiers should thus feel that the fate of the Amazon tips on their consumption patterns is patently ridiculous. Let's figure that there's about two board feet of rosewood/mahogany in one guitar, and an industrious luthier makes about 24 guitars a year, that's about fifty board feet (generously calculated) of tropical timbers utilized by luthiers per year. Extrapolating from a (widely overestimated) population of two hundred working luthiers, a total consumption of ten thousand board feet per year can be used as a working figure for how much rosewood/mahogany luthiers use. On the other hand, Georgia Pacific and Weyerhauser doubtlessly consume MILLIONS of board feet of tropical timbers per year for pulp, veneer, millwork and furniture parts. So if luthiers, or even designer-woodworkers stopped using mahogany overnight, it would save several trees per year, which would be nevertheless absorbed into the flow of the ongoing world trade without a blip.

Yes, I know we are ALL responsible and we should all do our little part. But putting this cant aside, all of the world's timber resources, in fact, are being depleted at a unprecedented rate--not by luthiers and designer- craftspeople (who comprise the bulk of W.A.R.P.'s mailing list)--but rather by the pulp, furniture and millwork industry. This engorgement is the daily workaday activity of the very, very big extractors: huge juggernaughts driven by the need to constantly create short-term profits for their investors and daily salaries for thousands of employees. Depriving a handful of artisans of their...toothpicks, in order to save the Amazon seems laughable, indeed!

Fisheries are a parallel example. The ocean, another crucial ecosystem, is being depleted of living creatures at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. It's ultimate fate is being determined as we speak, in the same way as the rainforest's. In this case, the Taiwanese, French, and Japanese drift-net fleets are the engines of destruction. Any one of the fishing-factories in that vast armada can extract, in a single thirty-mile drift net, what a small Gloucester or New Bedford fishing boat can catch in an entire year. To play in the big-league fishing game nowadays, you have to go deeper into the resource, in an ever-more aggresive manner, and invest in fabulously costly technology that facilitates the efficient extraction of a dwindling supply. That there is a now a real possibility that the ocean will be totally fished out (threatening an ecological catastrophe as terrible as the levelling of the rainforests) does not seem to trouble the large extractors: they appear to be concerned only about opening new markets, in order to consume the "oceans" of fish that they are now able to extract with their vast nets and satellites. In recent years, smaller fishermen have been organizing, in an effort to plead to government and the fleet-owners for prudence and "management." But government believes the industry is more important than the fish, and the industry says that that they have to get more fish to pay for the expensive high-tech fleet. And the vacuuming of the oceans goes on, like the rainforests. And the tiny utilizers, Gloucester fishermen and guitarmakers alike, plead for "sustainability."

It occurs to me that we've been asking the wrong questions! The questions we should ask aren't, should I buy that extra set of rosewood (or any rosewood at all), or should I eat less fish, or refrain from making another guitar? As relevant as these questions are to us, they are essentially irrelevant in the larger scheme. The right questions are: how do we rally the political will and create a popular mandate for economic de-centralization, indeed, for economic justice? For teaching the next generation that human survival is directly connected to the survival of major ecosystems? For the installation of long-range planning as the driving ethic of commerce? For a re-valuation of values, where wealth is that which is produced by the human hand and heart, NOT that which is created by the deal-making machinations of stock-market sharpies and commodity-exchange brokers? Where value is measured by what lasts rather than by what is convenient to use up? THESE are the relevant questions. Individually, our charge is to get as many people asking these questions as we can, and demand that our leaders consider them also--or be replaced.

And this, ultimately, will determine the fate of not only the tropical rainforests and the other great ecosystems, but our own fate as well.