Conservation news

Colombia’s sustainable forestry drive boosts biodiversity and business

  • Despite the high costs and long registration times, sustainable timber harvesting has the potential to bring more value to rural Colombians while also acting as an effective and important conservation tool.
  • Forest management plans are critical to establishing which trees should be exploited, as well as setting standards for related processes so that the environmental impact can be minimized and deforestation avoided.
  • Since the start of it Legal Wood Pact in 2009, Colombia has seen sales of legal timber grow from $500,000 in 2011 to $13 million in 2018, with sustainable forestry now considered a key growth area for the economy.

Flor Angela Martinez is a mother, campesino and entrepreneur. Based in the Colombian Amazon, her company has become renowned for its sustainable timber harvesting practices. But before she made the transition in 2014, Martinez used to cut and sell wood illegally.

“To work illegally is based on luck. There are days when it goes well, there are days when it doesn’t,” Martinez says. “When you are working illegally you are not worried where it comes from, where it goes, what compensation you have to pay, what taxes need to be paid, nothing.”

Martinez’s business is based in Tarapacá, a nearly pristine stretch of forest in the country’s southeastern tip. Here, her company cuts three to four trees per hectare in a 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) concession, serving as a model for how timber can be sustainably harvested from natural forests.

Tarapacá is in the southeastern tip of Colombia near the border with Brazil.

“I was just looking at the economic aspect,” Martinez says of her timber trafficking days, before she incurred a huge loss for being caught with an illegal consignment. That forced her hand. “I like my work, I was going to do what I needed to do it legally.”

Due to its relative remoteness, lacking a road to the interior of the country, this region of the Colombian Amazon has been saved from some of the worst levels of deforestation and the advance of the agricultural frontier. But to harvest timber legally here, Martinez first had to have a forest management plan approved by CorpoAmazonia, the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Sustainable Development (CAR) for this part of the Amazon. This took three years and cost her a large chunk of her savings, roughly $11,000.

In Colombia there are 27 CARs, each of which are responsible for administering the environment and renewable natural resources and promoting sustainable development within their jurisdictions. CARs report to the national Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and are often underfunded considering their enormous mandate. A unique feature of CARs is that their jurisdictions are drawn according to ecosystems, biogeographic or hydrogeographic units, rather than within the administrative lines of the country’s 32 departments.

In an interview with Mongabay, Luis Fernando Cueva, CorpoAmazonia’s Amazonas territorial director, explained how due to the immense size of the territories and the extensive process of carrying out full biological inventories — which include identifying which individual trees can be cut and which should be left to reproduce — a quick turnaround time for an application can take 14 months.

Miguel Pacheco, WWF Colombia’s natural resources and livelihoods coordinator, told Mongabay that despite the long time needed to be registered, sustainable timber production using management plans not only has the potential to bring more value to those harvesting the timber, but also acts as an effective and important conservation tool.

“There is a common misconception that … to take wood from the forest means to deforest it to the ground, but people need to understand that forest management has rules which set out which trees should be exploited and establish criteria to avoid a large impact,” Pacheco says.

Pacheco also says the management plan sets standards for all the associated processes, like for creating paths and stockyards, which also minimize the environmental impact and prevent deforestation.

Conservation cohabiting with timber harvesting

In November 2019, Chicago’s Field Museum, along with local communities in Tarapacá and scientists from Colombia, Peru and elsewhere, performed a rapid biological and social inventory in the region, which included Martinez’s concession.

“We didn’t know what we would find,” says Corine Vriesendorp, the Field Museum’s senior conservation ecologist and director of its Andes-Amazon program.

The Field Musuem’s biological inventories document biodiversity in unique and threatened areas so the data collected can be used to more effectively lobby for the region’s conservation. This was the 31st inventory performed by the Field Museum, and although the final version is pending publication, an executive summary was shared with Mongabay that noted the high levels of fauna and flora where selective cutting was taking place.

Tarapacá, with its unique geology and geography, has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Amazon. Image by Germán Chávez

Vriesendorp took part in the inventory and says that in her 18 years working in the region, the strip around Tarapacá, with its unique geology and geography, has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Amazon, with around 3,000 plant species, 400 bird species, including a new species discovered in Martinez’s concession, hundreds of fish, and many mammal species.

“What I can say is that the biodiversity there is incredible. It is in a good state, and the way that Doña Flor thinks is interesting,” Vriesendorp says. One aspect of what makes Martinez’s business model unique is the investment she has made in the work camp. In attempting to make it as comfortable as possible for the workers in an exceptionally remote area, she provides them with dormitories, a kitchen with a cook to make them meals, toilets that flush, and even DirectTV.

As the workers do not need to hunt birds and animals to eat, there’s been a positive impact on the area’s wildlife, Vreisendorp says. The behavior of the animals indicates a lot about the biological health of an area, she says, noting that the inventory encountered many mammals in Martinez’s concession, such as woolly monkeys that appeared “plump, with babies, looking at you and being curious.”

Value chains

WWF has been working since 2000 with the Colombian government, CARs and forest communities across the country on sustainable timber production and the proper implementation of forest management plans. Pacheco says a big lesson learned was to look at the whole value chain, because legal timber production, with its added costs to be sustainable, cannot compete in the market with illegal products.

WWF focuses on raising awareness among consumers and teaching harvesters to add value on site by cutting trees to the specific needs of the buyer. It also supports CARs to strengthen their capacity and get permits out faster. Pacheco says he has seen improvements in some CARs approving management plans in three to six months.

In most cases, those who cut the trees earn very little compared to the intermediaries and those who sell the timber in its final form. A WWF internal study shared with Mongabay showed how there are often as many as four intermediaries between those cutting wood in the Amazon and those purchasing it in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, with each intermediary collecting a fee along the way. A policy document by Colombia’s National Department of Planning mentions this earnings difference between harvester and final consumer can be as high as 3,000%.

Forest management plans establish which trees should be exploited to minimize environmental impact and avoid deforestation. Image by Álvaro del Campo

While Pacheco acknowledges that the costs and delays in approving a forest management plan can dissuade producers from working legally, one of the biggest economic incentives to adopt sustainable forestry is that it allows producers to sell directly to buyers, thus cutting out the intermediaries. To assist sustainable producers in this, the Colombian government has been improving the traceability of harvested timber and also launched the Legal Wood Pact, a public-private agreement to ensure the legality of timber harvested, processed and marketed in Colombia. The pact was introduced in 2009 and its intersectoral nature was a first for Latin America.

In response to questions submitted for this story, the environment ministry’s Directorate of Forests, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services says there are 69 entities, including Martinez, signed up to the pact, who also benefit from being listed on the “Elija madera legal” (“Choose legal wood”) website.

Through the accreditation, and other accreditations like the environment ministry’s portfolio of green businesses, Martinez’s timber has been used in major public works projects like the Leticia airport, training colleges and research institutions. Yet outside of these big projects, Martinez says it can still be difficult to convince local consumers that it is worth paying more for sustainable timber.

Although there is still some way to go in winning the hearts and minds of local timber consumers, the directorate says it has already noted important technological, organizational, cultural and economic impacts stemming from the pact, including sales of legal timber growing from $500,000 in 2011 to $13 million in 2018.

Transformation

Another way to cut out the intermediaries and ensure more value stays within local communities is by increasing the level of processing of the raw timber on site. The directorate estimates that 70% of timber from natural forests is sold in a primary state, such as in blocks, slabs, sheets and chips, rather than in higher-value processed forms like parquets, grooved panels, doors, and raw or finished furniture.

After the Amazon, Colombia’s Pacific region has some of the highest levels of deforestation in the country, while also being home to some of the country’s highest levels of biodiversity. At the Chocó University of Technology, researchers aim to address the local processing of timber in the region by constructing a sustainable timber plant in the department’s capital of Quibdó.

Project lead Yesid Aguilar Lemus told Mongabay that the project will create more than 400 jobs in the department while also allowing communities in the region to benefit from sustainably harvesting timber, processing it locally, and thus not having to deal with intermediaries. Lemus is also involved in a related project that has planted nearly 1.4 million timber trees in the region’s natural forests.

The Pacific region of Colombia is also unique in that most of the territory is made up of collective lands self-governed by Afro-Colombian communities, which also boast some of the highest levels of conservation in the country. By transforming timber closer to the communities and effectively replanting forests, the retained sales value can go to community projects while also allowing communities to continue protecting their forests.

Lemus’s projects will work closely with Cocomacia, Colombia’s largest Afro-Colombian community council, which was also part of a groundbreaking court case that gave the region’s longest river, the Atrato, the right to be treated like a person.

Flor Angela Martinez’s workcamp surrounded by pristine Amazonian forest in Tarapacá, Colombia. Image by Álvaro del Campo

“The problem that we have always had is that with the number of intermediaries, we were forced to sell at very, very cheap prices. The only one who doesn’t profit is the one who harvests!” says Ricardo Florez Mosquera, the leader of Cocomacia. “We are looking for a way that the value which would have gone to the intermediary can then go to the communities.”

Looking to the future

In addition to the direct benefits of sustainably maintaining forests, a study into the emissions from selective cutting in two sites, one where Cocomacia operates and the other in Tarapacá where Martinez works, shows the potential for sustainably run forests to bring additional benefits through payment mechanisms such as REDD+. Under such schemes, industrialized countries pay developing countries to preserve their forests so as to offset the former’s greenhouse gas emissions.

While almost half of Colombia’s timber comes from illegal sources and the country imports more timber than it exports, the Colombian government is focused on sustainably developing the domestic forestry sector. It is a key part of the government’s Green Growth Policy and National Development Plan, and a study by Colombia’s agriculture ministry estimates that demand for timber products in 2030 will approximately double from the current demand.

In meeting its aim to reach zero deforestation by the same year, this timber will need to come from plantations and sustainably used forests.

Governmental and nongovernmental entities in forest regions have created forestry roundtables to sustainably develop the forestry sector and allow for dialogue between the different stakeholders, including campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, as well as all those involved in the production process, from harvesters and processors to traders of timber and non-timber products, transporters, artisans, and others.

Hugo Caravajal, from the Department of Amazonia’s Forestry Roundtable, which covers Martinez’s concession, says that if the government wants to create more confidence in sustainable forestry, a long-term view is needed, one that is more reflective of a tree’s long life span. Caravajal says this means permits in Colombia need to be extended from the current 10-year limit to 20 to 40 years, like in Guatemala, a regional leader in sustainable forestry.

Caravajal also says there is still work to be done to market lesser-known timber species, improve infrastructure, and make financing available, so that sustainable forestry can generate jobs. Without these measures, people will continue working illegally, he says. Speaking of harvesters who have made the transition from illegal to legal forestry, Caravajal says that “they work in the forests for a living, and they have no other choice. They are users of the forest, they can’t escape that reality.”

Despite the selective cutting in Martinez’s concession, many mammals were seen indicating the good biological health of the area. Photo by Field Museum camera trap