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A Brazilian forest community shows certified timber really does work

  • In Pará, the Brazilian state with the highest deforestation rate, communities inside Tapajós National Forest have for the past 15 years run one of the most successful native timber management projects.
  • Eighteen of the 24 communities in the conservation area are part of the project, which involves an average of 130 people. Forest management is their main source of income.
  • In 2013, the communities earned FSC certification.
  • Today, their products are sold around the world, thanks to partnerships with renowned designers to produce quality sustainable furniture and decorative objects.

TAPAJÓS NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil — For the forest communities of Tapajós National Forest in the heart of the Amazon, running a sustainable and profitable timber business seems like an impossible dream.

Yet they’ve been doing it now for 15 years, here in the most visited conservation area in the state of Pará, which has the highest deforestation rate in Brazil. And they have the stamp of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which attests to the product’s legal origin and gives it a premium in both the domestic market and abroad. They’ve even set up a furniture workshop to reuse leftover tree branches.

Through judicious forestry management, coveted species such as cedar and the tropical hardwoods ipê, jatobá, cumaru, and itaúba from the Amazon can end up as furniture without the burden of guilt, destruction and illegality typically associated with timber logged from the rainforest.

Illegal logging in the Amazon is one of the main drivers of deforestation, accounting for almost 20% of trees felled this year, according to data gathered by the DETER satellite monitoring system of Brazil’s national space agency, INPE. In the first quarter of 2020, it detected 1,204 square kilometers (463 square miles) of newly deforested areas.

Aluisio Patrocínio de Sousa is a forestry engineer and a member of Coomflona, the Tapajós National Forest Mixed Co-operative. He says the difference between proper forestry management and illegal logging is that the former follows rules for the logging area and the number of trees to be felled, all defined by previous inventory.

With illegal logging, there’s no assessment, and the best trees are felled, leaving behind a trail of destruction. “It’s all about shouting. One person shouts to the other, ‘Here is a good one,’ and they go there and cut the tree down,” Patrocínio says.

A tree in the Tapajós National Forest’s management area, which covers 80,000 hectares (about 200,000 acres), or 15% of the conservation unit. Image courtesy of Coomflona.

FSC Brazil’s executive director, Aline Tristão, says forestry management is an important non-predatory alternative for exploiting natural resources in the Amazon. But she points out some challenges: “Any product that comes from the forest can be certified, but tropical forest timber is the most challenging one because it takes scale to compete with illegal products. Certified timber needs to be valued because it’s not easy to keep that certification. Our biggest challenge is to dissociate forestry management from deforestation.”

One of the rules of forestry management is a limit of 30 cubic meters (1,060 cubic feet) of timber that can be felled per hectare, in cycles ranging from 25 to 35 years. Only trees that have a trunk with a minimum diameter of 50 centimeters (20 inches) can be cut, and a proportion of mature trees of each species must be left in the forest so it can regenerate.

Local communities in Tapajós National Forest have carried out forestry management since 2005. Today, the management area covers ​​80,000 hectares (200,000 acres), or 15% of the total conservation unit. They received FSC certification in 2013, and while this didn’t necessarily result in more income for the community, it still gave then empowerment and recognition for their work. Eighteen of the 24 communities in the national forest are part of the project, which involves an average of 130 timber managers who earn the minimum wage.

Income generation

The community embarked on the path of timber management because of their need for income. According to manager Arimar Feitosa Rodrigues, residents used to work as family farmers, subsistence fishers, flour producers, seed collectors, rubber extractors, and community-based tourism guides, since Tapajós is known for its exuberant river beaches and forest trails. Rodrigues says discussions to implement timber management started in the 1990s.

“We used to get frustrated and sometimes we thought we wouldn’t be able to do it, but we didn’t budge and now the project is here, and it’s great for Brazil and the world,” he says. He had never worked with timber before and says he suffered the first time he watched the trees falling. “I thought the forest was going to disappear, but then I understood that, if we didn’t do it, some outside company would come to exploit it. Today we live better than before and we do everything legally.”

The cutting cycle in Tapajós National Forest is 35 years, and up to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) may be exploited per year. Trees are identified for cutting based on factors ranging from defects to market demand.

The forestry management area, the size of 2,000 soccer fields, is divided into 20 work units of 100 hectares (250 acres) each, where 3,000 m3 (106,000 ft3) of timber can be exploited per year. That amounts to about four trees per work unit, depending on the species. With an estimated 4,500 m3 (159,000 ft3) of timber in each work unit, that leaves 30,000 m3 (1.06 million ft3) of timber trees standing in the area where exploitation is allowed.

Valdirene Cardoso dos Santos, right, says she has benefited from partnerships between the community forestry managers and urban designers, who train them in furniture making to help boost their income. Image courtesy of BVRio.

Furniture from the forest to the world

The Anambé furniture workshop was created to reuse branches left from trees that were logged under timber management rules. And a partnership with renowned designers from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro not only trained local cabinetmakers but also boasts the origin of these forest products wherever they go.

The project, developed by the NGO BVRio together with Coomflona and FSC Brazil, focuses on promoting the use and consumption of certified native timber through exchange of experiences and knowledge between the urban and the traditional. Cooperative members participate in workshops to improve the techniques they use for producing furniture and decorative objects, and designers learn about responsible timber management and species.

One of the first designers to take part in the interchange was Carlos Motta, who has been making wood furniture for four decades. “It’s a strong knowledge exchange and we are all fascinated. This approach catalyzes something that is very Brazilian,” he says.

As a result of the workshop developed by Motta, the traditional wooden bowls known as cumbucas that are widely used in the Amazon by riverine and indigenous people gained a new market. They were standardized to fit together so they could be packaged and sent abroad, including to the U.S. and the U.K.

“This is industrial optimization. In each of these boxes there is a lathed piece of forest waste, and it is a cumbuca bowl,” Motta says. “These experiences are enriching, and it’s something that belongs to us in terms of affection, history, the product itself, the wood, the habits. The product is 100% Brazilian in its representativeness.”

Jorge Luis was born and raised in the community. He has been a cabinetmaker for 30 years and has worked at the furniture workshop since the beginning. “I’m Anambé’s most experienced cabinetmaker,” he says proudly. He says all his products leave the furniture workshop virtually ready, arriving in São Paulo with only minor adjustments to be made before being sold. One of his vases ended up in Milan. “When the workshop started, we were kind of lost, with no perspective, and then the training opportunity came. The designers brought new ideas, and we started to believe in ourselves,” Luis says.

In addition to learning cabinetmaking techniques in the furniture workshop, Valdirene Cardoso dos Santos was able to save money and help her family. “Several community members work there, and I am one of them. In my encounter with the designers, I learned how to make furniture and understood the importance of every step from cutting the trees to finishing the pieces, and the value of those trees that were removed from the forest,” she says.

Designer Carlos Motta in São Paulo holds one of the bowls produced by community members in Tapajós National Forest. Image courtesy of BVRio.

Recognizing legality

For the community’s forestry managers, the FSC certification awarded in 2013 meant recognition that their products were legal — an important factor for buyers. But it’s still difficult to compete with illicit products, not only in price ​​but also in terms of understanding the importance of a product that respects the forest, from beginning to end.

“The FSC [label] is the recognition that our timber is legal, and it shows that it’s possible to do things differently, since we comply with the procedures,” Patrocínio says. “It’s a legal activity: extracting raw material, complying with the guidelines, and paying the residents who work there.”

According to Angelo Ricardo Sousa, an environmental engineer and the technician in charge of forest certification, it also expands the market. He says the best thing about the timber management project was the creation of Coomflona with a commercial and entrepreneurial character, because members were able to dedicate themselves to the activity with a focus on productivity.

For Sousa, certification is a process of gradual improvement, which, despite creating some red tape and demands, also has a social side since the income is distributed within the community itself. “Coomflona’s certification is an example, and that makes people see us in a different light,” he says. “It means empowering the community itself and a change in view, showing that it’s possible to do things differently.”

Banner image of Jorge Luis, the most experienced cabinetmaker among residents of Tapajós National Forest, who has had his furniture sold as far away as Milan. Image courtesy of BVRio.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on July 2, 2020.