When it comes to deforestation, loggers have usually received the bulk of the bad press. Armed with chainsaws, they are the bogeymen typically blamed for doing away with not only our forests, but also the biodiversity which inhabits them.
But as anyone who has worked on forestry issues – particularly in the tropical regions home to the world’s greatest biodiversity – knows, the demise of natural forests usually comes in the form of a double whammy: first come the loggersbut then come the settlers who turn the land into farms or plantations, preventing the re-growth of natural forest.
Now a new paper published recently in Conservation Letters seeks to quantify the actual impact of logging on biodiversity in the tropics – specifically in Indonesia, one of the world’s main battlegrounds over the timber industry. “Cost-effective Conservation: Calculating Biodiversity and Logging Trade-offs in Southeast Asia,” by Brendan Fisher et al, claims to “show that selectively logged forests represent a surprisingly low-cost option for conserving high levels of biodiversity.” The paper explains that according to empirical evidence from the Sundaland biodiversity hot spot in Indonesia:
[T]he standing value of timber dropped from $10,460 per hectare to $2,010 per hectare after two logging rotations, yet these forests retained over 75 percent of bird and dung beetle species found in primary unlogged forest. We suggest that the conservation of selectively logged forests represents a highly cost-efficient opportunity to enlarge existing protected areas, improve connectivity between them, and to create new, large protected areas.
In the discussion section, the paper explains why this finding may be so useful:
Given their potential cost-effectiveness, logged forests represent an opportunity to increase connectivity between protected areas and to enlarge existing parks, two goals that are becoming increasingly urgent in Southeast Asia as existing parks are illegally degraded or become increasingly isolated by conversion of adjacent areas to oil palm plantations and other agricultural lands. Logged forests also represent important targets for conservation in their own right given the large biodiversity benefits potentially delivered at much lower cost.
Can logged forests, even forests which have been logged twice, really be considered useful for conservation? In making the case, this paper is another shot fired in the war over sustainable logging, or “sustainable logging” – the presence of quotes depending on whether you think such a practice is possible. Several of the authors work for large environmental groups such as WWF and Conservation International, which have put a lot of time and effort into showing that “low-impact logging” can co-exist with protecting biodiversity.
How diverse is diverse?
But the study comes with both a question and a caveat. The question is whether birds and beetles are sufficient indicators of biodiversity. The caveat is that it does not address what is likely the biggest threat to Indonesian forests – palm oil plantations.
I asked several experts for their thoughts on the study, and none seemed surprised by the results. Harry Surjadi, a veteran forestry reporter and founder of the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, said he has been through many forest areas degraded by logging and still sees lots birds, insects and other small species. “Selectively logged forests do maintain a fair amount of form, composition and structural and functional integrity,” agreed Jack Hurd, director of the Asia-Pacific Forest Program at the Nature Conservancy. “They remain an important part of a ‘multi-functional’ landscape approach to conservation.
“Efforts to enhance connectivity are important for wide-ranging species, however,” added Hurd, “so the bird and dung beetle are important indicators but not ‘keystone’ species.” Surjadi also noted the limitations of only looking at these two groups of animals: “We are talking about tropical biodiversity-rich areas. We need more research on other indicator species, especially mammals that will [feel] the impact [more].”
But a bigger problem with the study is the failure to examine the impact of oil palm plantations, which Surjadi says are “more dangerous to biodiversity [than] logging.” He added:
Why? Because you have to [completely] clear the land before planting the oil palm trees. In logging, you only cut and take the valuable wood and leave other trees (although some other trees will die also). Oil palm will [cause a] faster decrease [to] biodiversity. Since it is a monoculture, only certain and limited kinds of animals will come back.
Besides using fire for land-clearing, oil palm plantation companies — at least in Indonesia, in many cases — will ask for primary [natural] forests rather than secondary forests (or logged forests) for their concessions. The companies will then log the forests before planting oil palm trees. They will take the money from the logs [to use for] their investment in oil palm.
Another reviewer was even more critical, describing the failure to focus on oil palm plantations as “a huge hole in the paper and its conclusions,” akin to excluding “consideration of the availability of firearms on murder rates in the United States.” This reviewer questioned the motivation behind the Indonesian research — but declined to be quoted for attribution, showing just how sensitive this issue has become — and noted the eagerness of major environmental groups “to show how and why and under what circumstances continued logging of natural forests can be deemed ‘sustainable.’”
To be fair, the paper acknowledges that “[o]ur analysis ignores a critical driver of forest cover change in Southeast Asia: the expansion of oil palm plantations.” But it adds:
Despite the significant obstacle to conservation that oil palm plantations represent, the area under logging concessions still dwarfs that under oil palm. For example, Indonesia, the world’s biggest oil palm producer, has 9.7 million hectares under oil palm but 46 million hectares of natural forest in logging concessions, suggesting there are many opportunities for conservation efforts directed at logged forests that are not currently under threat of conversion to oil palm.
However, given the potential future expansion of oil palm plantations and other land developments onto selectively logged lands, the fate of much of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity may ultimately hinge on whether the conservation community can overcome the opportunity cost of oil palm or can encourage the implementation of large-scale landscape planning in order to reliably protect areas critical for biodiversity.
Another question raised by this study, and by the broader effort to develop sustainable or low-impact logging techniques is whether they might encourage governments to allow more logging, even in areas that are already supposed to be protected for conservation. Surjadi discounts such a threat, precisely because logging is simply not considered as lucrative these days as oil palm.
But he does argue the study will strongly support Indonesia’s efforts to start up carbon-storage projects known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). “The study [shows] that the secondary forests (logged forests) will be suitable for REDD+ demonstration projects in the tropics.”
Acknowledging the broader implications of such a study, the paper’s authors note:
The bird and dung beetle losses that occur during logging are not trivial, and our results should not be used to suggest that, by logging primary forests, governments could gain huge financial profits at little cost to biodiversity. The logging of primary forests precipitates a significant loss of biodiversity, as shown in all four of our indicators. Beyond biodiversity, Southeast Asia’s lowland dipterocarp forests provide numerous ecosystem services, including carbon storage, regulation of river flows and sedimentation, and a variety of aesthetic and cultural benefits. In some cases, these ecosystem services have quantifiable economic values, such that the logging of primary forests will predicate (sometimes large) social costs. We did not calculate the trade-off curves for these wider ecosystem services with respect to logging.
Use them or lose them
But if natural forests are to be protected, it is becoming increasingly vital to calculate precisely those values of ecosystem services, and the wider conservation value of protecting intact and biodiversity-rich habitats. As Hurd concludes:
There is a compelling case to be made for natural forests for another reason. Increasingly, investments are being made in fast-growing plantations which compete for land with both natural forests and oil palm. Increasingly products can be made from engineered woods that use more fast growing soft wood (e.g. rubber) and less tropical hardwood (e.g. dipterocarps).
If natural forests cannot be part of the economic equation then they will be converted to plantation timberlands. Products derived from natural forests have the potential to be relegated to ‘boutique items.’ In other words, use them or lose them.