An interview with Tropical Salvage's Tim O'Brien
Salvage logging offers hope for forests, communities devastated by industrial logging
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 4, 2008
Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Nevertheless demand for wood products continues to grow. China is expected to import more than 100 million cubic meters of industrial roundwood by 2010, much of which will go into finished products shipped off to Europe and the United States. As much as 60 percent of this is illicitly sourced. Meanwhile in Brazil domestic hunger for timber is fueling widespread illegal logging of the Amazon rainforest. Armed standoffs between environmental police and people employed by unlicensed operators are increasingly common.
Tim O'Brien, founder of Tropical Salvage. Photo by Edward Wolf
Tim O'Brien, founder of Tropical Salvage (tropicalsalvage.com), says the idea for the company came during a 1998 visit to Indonesia. In his tour of several islands, O'Brien was struck by the volume of wood discarded as wooden structures were being replaced by concrete and rebar ones. At the same time he was appalled by a tract of beautiful and biologically-rich primary rainforest laid waste by logging near Gunung Leseur National Park.
"It looked like a particularly psychotic episode of vandalism," he told mongabay.com. "A place that had been one of the most biologically diverse spots on earth since time immemorial had, in the course of a few months, been reduced to an eerie, silent ruin of power-saw litter. It was ominous and affecting."
"The rightness and wrongness of our management of tropical forests might be aptly illustrated by looking down the line formed by a still standing primary forest abutting a clear-cut forest," he continued. "The cut side appears exactly like what it is: reckless squander driven by short-sighted business interests. The forest's role as an invaluable multi-faceted resource is ended. The living side illustrates a world in which we thoughtfully and respectfully observe, interact with, derive pleasure from and learn to use the full spectrum of life's phenomena."
O'Brien with Agus Rafiqkoh, who leads the Tropical Salvage team in Indonesia. According to Kevin Havice, O'Brien's associate at Tropical Salvage, "Without Agus, Tropical Salvage would not be possible."
"Tropical Salvage has provided the seed capital for and significantly helped to shape and implement the Jepara Forest Conservancy, an Indonesian non-profit "yayasan" formed by a group of citizens from Jepara and Kudus concerned about environmental degradation and sustainable economic development on the Mount Muria peninsula, located in north central Java, Indonesia," he said. "Guiding the Jepara Forest Conservancy's vision are principles that forestry-based climate change mitigation projects must be fully integrated with climate change adaptation strategies and that environmental protection is best achieved by working together with site communities to combine environmental objectives with generating sustainable livelihoods and cultural resilience."
In a December 2008 interview with mongabay.com, O'Brien discussed his work with Tropical Salvage and the Conservancy.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TIM O'BRIEN
Mongabay: How did Tropical Salvage get started and what was your inspiration?
Tom O'Brien: The idea for Tropical Salvage occurred during a visit to Indonesia in 1998. Two observations encouraged the idea. First, wherever I traveled in Java, Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa, I noticed old wooden structures being replaced by new structures built from concrete and rebar. In many instances no plan existed to re-use the old beams, boards and poles. Old, hand-hewn wood deriving from mature, tight-grained, tropical hardwood trees was fueling cooking fires. The idea was also inspired by a visit to Gunung Leseur National Park, in western Sumatra. In a week of trekking, we encountered an astonishing array of wildlife, including six different species of primates, monitor lizards as long as canoes, several types of snakes, numerous exotic birds, butterflies and other small creatures, and a fantastically diverse population of enormous trees in which most of the creatures made their homes.
Along the way, we also encountered a vast area of recently clear-cut primary forest. It looked like a particularly psychotic episode of vandalism. A place that had been one of the most biologically diverse spots on earth since time immemorial had, in the course of a few months, been reduced to an eerie, silent ruin of power-saw litter. It was ominous and affecting.
Primary and logged forest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
The experience in Sumatra was so disturbing that I couldn't passively absorb it into a complex world's expanding landscape of unsettling experience. Living in the "age of information," when science has made clear the dependency of human quality of life on eco-system integrity, asserting a more active role in contributing to tropical forest conservation seemed a useful course to follow.
Mongabay: What is your primary area of operation? Do you work in areas where logging as a source of employment has declined to due resource depletion?
Tom O'Brien: We work mainly in central and eastern Java but have also sourced from Sumatra, Lombok and Sumbawa. Yes, logging as a source of employment has declined precipitously on all of the islands where we work. Also, quality of life among the islands' inhabitants has declined as a result of diminished ecosystem services caused by irresponsible clear-cut logging strategies.
Mongabay: Is it unusual for a U.S.-based wood products seller to have a vertically integrated system with direct harvesting overseas?
Tropical Salvage craftsmen at work. Photo by Edward Wolf
Mongabay: Harvesting timber from lakes, volcanic deposits, and landslides must present many challenges. Are harvesting costs significantly higher than conventional-logging? Is there enough "salvageable" timber to make this a long-term model?
Tom O'Brien: Yes, our wood sourcing strategies pose more logistical challenges than straightforward forest or plantation wood harvests. Our labor costs are higher, as we employ many more hands to deconstruct structures or work trees out of rivers, the ground and landslide debris piles. Much of our wood is significantly less expensive because we've learned to use a variety of species, distressed by a variety of conditions, that weren't previously regarded as appropriate to building furniture.
Salvaging timber from rivers. Courtesy of Tropical Salvage
While we know enormous resources of salvageable wood exist in many areas of Indonesia, which is among the world's woodiest places, we're uncertain about what that might translate into as a long-term model for a broader competitive market. While appreciation of our work and products is growing, the distressed and expressive grains of many of the woods we use have a limited appeal that might not ever drive a large market.
Salvaging entombed wood from volcanic soil and buried timber from an oil palm plantation. Courtesy of Tropical Salvage
Mongabay: Do you see potential to expand the Tropical Salvage model to other parts of the world?
Tom O'Brien: Yes. We recently sent a first shipment to London. The reserved, more sober and perhaps more traditionally inclined English are still mulling what to make of it.
Mongabay: What about on the sourcing to Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia?
Tom O'Brien: We do see potential for that, and we have discussed the idea -- though for the present and the short-term future, we have no definite intention of pursuing it. We are confident that this kind of work could make a difference in people's lives there, and that there is great wood to be salvaged be salvaged in those places. There are other factors that contribute to the success of our business in Indonesia, notably:
- the skilled craftsmen to employ there (North Central Java has a long tradition of furniture-building and woodworking); and
- convenient logistics/shipping infrastructure (our facility on Java is very close to Semarang, a major port)
Mongabay: Are you going to seek FSC-certification or does it not apply to the sort of harvesting you do?
Production warehouse. Photo by Edward Wolf
Mongabay: How are customers responding to your offerings? Do customers show interest in other ways to support conservation in Indonesia?
Tom O'Brien: Tropical Salvage is a growing niche business. Some customer responses have been enthusiastic, some quizzical and others reserved. As I noted, we're still unsure of what size market might exist for our somewhat innovative interpretation of beautiful and meaningful wood furniture. Many customers are very interested in and supportive of the issues we address by integrating business with social and environmental activism focused in Indonesia. Many sales are significantly influenced by our social and environmental work. However, if the products were not on their own, independent of TS's mission objectives, well made, uniquely beautiful and good value the business could not exist.
Mongabay: How are locals responding to your efforts?
Tim, Agus, and Agus' wife and daughter. Photo by Edward Wolf
It has been wonderful to observe an evolution of perspective that has occurred among many of Tropical Salvage's employees. When we began the company, many employees were visibly unhappy with having to apply their efforts and skill to unfamiliar and very strangely sourced woods. Their previous furniture construction experience was limited to using straight-grained, uniformly hued, mostly plantation grown teak and luan mahogany. They thought the traditional formula, which was effectively popularized by the colonial Dutch some four-hundred years ago, equaled credibility in the international – developed world – marketplace. I think they considered Tropical Salvage's business strategy a little embarrassing and shameful. Today, employees greatly prefer more uncommonly expressive wood grains and odder sourcing stories.
Mongabay: Tropical Salvage has an ambitious conservation project. Can you elaborate on this effort?
Tom O'Brien: Tropical Salvage integrates business with social and environmental activism because we understand the business community must join the lead in seeking solutions to unprecedented challenges to our world's social and environmental integrity. In Indonesia, we create good, steady, eco-positive jobs and implement conservation, forest restoration and environmental education programs. In the United States, Canada and Europe, we advocate and strive to embody best responsible practices in the marketplace.
Jepara Forest Conservancy site. Photo by Edward Wolf
JFC will shape land-use on the site to answer challenges caused by deforestation and climate change. The project will integrate a climate change mitigation facility with environmental restoration strategies that are climate change adaptive and build local food security, cultural resilience and sustainable economic opportunities .
Our proposed project is planned in two stages:
Stage 1: Demonstrating a concrete quick win
The first stage is intended to demonstrate the capacity of our partnership to effectively address community needs through restoration of ecosystem services and development of sustainable livelihood strategies. Although we will not develop a carbon offset facility in this first stage, we plan to demonstrate the efficacy of our methods for our application for certification to the Climate Communities and Biodiversity standards in stage 2.
Jepara Forest Conservancy site. Photo by Edward Wolf
Results of interviews and meetings with community members have clarified community perceptions of the importance of ecosystem goods and services provided by the protected forest. The community members have identified several high-priority concerns for direct negative impacts to their health and livelihoods caused by degradations of these services. These impacts include damage to homes from high winds, landslide risk, soil degradation and erosion, and disappearance of natural sources of clean water
The reforestation initiative will practice principles of a "tumpangsari" (forest garden) which combines planting productive perennial species - to stimulate economic opportunity and establish a reliable local food source - with planting a broad mixture of native botanical species, many of which yield non-timber forest products that have traditional local uses, to intentionally revive and multiply the area's ancestral biological diversity.
Additional project aims are to protect the area's threatened natural sources of clean water, re-establish forest root-systems to abate soil erosion and reduce episodes of landslides, re-establish a forest canopy to buffer against strong winds, and expand forestland surrounding the site's core of primary natural forest, which contributes importantly to sustaining a population of endangered Javan ebony langurs, among other species. JFC's agreement with Perum Perhutani commits to a schedule to plant 60% native species and 40% agro-forestry species—such as coffee, cacao and cashew—and to practice organic cultivation.
Tropical Salvage warehouse. Photo by Edward Wolf
Stage 2: Ramping up
In stage two we will expand the scope of the project to include the additional 226 ha of land specified in our MU with PP. During this stage of the project we will establish a carbon offset facility. We plan to produce offset credits certified through the Carbon, Communities and Biodiversity system. Among the available certification systems, we see the CCB as most alligned with our goals and principles, although we will exceed their standards to answer equity concerns. As our project is a partnership between Indonesia and North American-based partners, we will market the credits in the US and Canadien voluntary market.
In its role as a carbon offset facility, JFC has two main goals. First, we see sales of carbon offset credits playing an important role in establishing a sustainable funding stream to realize the project's reforestation, conservation and community empowerment objectives. Our reforestation plan is not designed to optimize the carbon sequestration potential of the site, but rather, to find an equitable balance between carbon sequestration capacity and site community needs.
Seedlings for reforestation of Jepara Forest. Photo by Edward Wolf
Applying best practices international trade to build a strong and sustainable social and economic bridge between rural Indonesia and metropolitan America, Canada and Europe, we will facilitate cross-cultural understanding and respect. We are aware of the need for long-term accountability to the community in these market-based approaches and we will ensure that control of all agreements will lie entirely with the site communities.
In "Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies" , Thomas and Twyman find that developing "economic space and capacity for diversification beyond and within natural-resource use" is crucial to addressing the adaptation needs of vulnerable communities, as is enhancing the "policy space that allows local level innovations and responses to evolve". Through our public-private partnership approach and collaboration with Perum Perhutani, we aim to achieve exactly these results.
Mongabay: What are the future goals for the Jepara Forest Conservancy?
|Tropical Salvage wood products.|
Mongabay: How can people here in the U.S. support your efforts? Where are your products sold?
Tom O'Brien: Buy Tropical Salvage products. Donate money to the Jepara Forest Conservancy through The Institute for Culture and Ecology or Global Giving. (IFCAE receives 10% of such donations for their considerable administrative tasks.) Buy JFC products when they come to market. Tropical Salvage product vendors are listed on Tropical Salvage's website. Many of these vendors will also sell JFC products.
- Naylor, R.L., et al., Assessing risks of climate variability and climate change for Indonesian rice agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007. 104(19): p. 7752.
- Although we have not conducted a census to determine average household income, anecdotal evidence from our participatory mapping—community-based GIS mapping of the site was conducted by Starling Resources (starlingresources.com) in March - May, 2008—finds that household income is very low and is vulnerable to further degradation of the local environment. Thus, building economic resilience in the community is a high priority.
- Verchot, L., et al., Climate change: linking adaptation and mitigation through agroforestry. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 2007. 12(5): p. 901-918.
- Thomas, D.S.G. and C. Twyman, Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environmental Change, 2005. 15(2): p. 115-124.