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Red-hot demand for ipê wood coincides with deforestation hubs in Brazil

  • Logging to meet demand for the tropical hardwood ipê coincides with hotspots of illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, the source of 96% of the ipê used worldwide, a report shows.
  • So far this year, the total area of deforestation alerts in the top 20 ipê-harvesting municipalities cover an area an eighth the size of Rio de Janeiro.
  • The logging industry says concessions authorized by the government deliver only 2% of the native wood that reaches the markets; the remainder is potentially tainted with illegality.
  • Experts recommend sweeping measures to address the destruction of the Amazon for this coveted hardwood, including cracking down on deforestation and encouraging the use of alternative woods.

The highest rates of illegal exploitation of ipê trees are found in areas of the Brazilian Amazon where deforestation is skyrocketing. Increasing domestic consumption and exports have encouraged the felling of these threatened tropical hardwood species, with demand outstripping the authorized supply and leading to destruction of the forest.

More than 80% of the ipê wood that’s traded, from the genus Handroanthus, comes from 20 municipalities that are hotspots for deforestation. According to Mongabay’s findings, these municipalities accounted for deforestation alerts covering 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) from January to mid-June this year alone — an area an eighth the size of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Among these municipalities are those that routinely top the list for the highest deforestation rates in Brazil, including Altamira in the state of Pará, Colniza (Mato Grosso), Lábrea (Amazonas) and Porto Velho (Rondônia).

In practice, according to the Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification (Imaflora), an NGO, the hunt for ipê has spread out from the so-called Arc of Deforestation, where the trees have become rare or disappeared altogether, into public lands and protected areas.

Geographic evolution of the logging frontier in the Brazilian Amazon, highlighting the main ipê exploitation hubs in 1998, at left, and in 2018. Image courtesy of by Lentini et al./Imaflora (2021).

On average, each hectare of forest yields only 0.5 cubic meters of ipê wood, or about 7 cubic feet per acre. “That’s why illegal tree ‘miners’ enter the Amazon: logging, transportation, environmental and labor crimes, trade and tax evasion operate in ways similar to gold mining,” says Imaflora project manager Marco Lentini.

Ipê exploitation is stronger in northern and western Pará state, northwestern Mato Grosso, northern Rondônia and southern Amazonas. These last two regions are in the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Zone, in the area around the BR-319 federal road, where the private sector as well as the federal and state governments want to increase agribusiness. The region is one of the largest hotspots for land grabbing and deforestation aimed at carving out vast swaths of cattle pasture in the Brazilian Amazon.

“Ipê’s high value encourages and finances illegal logging and other crimes,” Lentini says. The hardwood, coveted for its appearance and durability, is the most expensive timber from South America. A square meter is now worth 15,000 reais (about $2,800) in global markets, where it’s used to make flooring and furniture. Brazil accounts for 96% of the ipê wood used in the world, according to a report by Forest Trends. But domestic consumption is also a major driver of deforestation.

Tighter control over the origin of the timber, demanded by large buyers in the European Union and the United States, may have contributed to a reduction in exports of sawn wood by 60% between 2007 and 2019. In the same period, however, logging more than doubled in the Amazon, which indicates that Brazilian consumers may have more than compensated for the decline in exports. During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic demand grew by 15%, especially for the construction industry in the country’s south and southeast.

A survey conducted by NGOs shows that, without transparency and reliable public data, it’s impossible to tell authorized production from illegal extraction in five of the seven states that harvest the most timber, including ipê, from the Amazon. The study raises concerns that the vast majority of wood products sold in Brazil or exported involves some degree of illegality.

Licensed and supervised management is the main tool to guarantee the survival of ipê trees and the Amazon, experts say. Image courtesy of Bruno Kelly/Imaflora.

Measures to curb ipê felling

Staving off the impending extinction of ipê trees calls for taking tougher actions against illegal exploitation, finding alternative trees species, and — to meet the current demand — expanding the logging management of the species. The current area in which ipê felling is authorized by federal, state and municipal authorities, known as the forest management area, is 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres). But Imaflora estimates it would take a minimum forest management area of 16 million hectares (40 million acres) — six times larger than at present. Management involves logging in interspersed lots over up to 30 years, allowing time for the vegetation to recover.

“Studies show good forest recovery two years after management,” says Paulo Carneiro, director of forestry concessions and monitoring at the Brazilian Forest Service (SFB). “It creates jobs and income, maintains biodiversity and avoids clear-cutting, which would emit carbon by replacing natural environments with pastures and monoculture plantations.”

Today, there are 21 federal concessions in public forest areas in the Amazon. By mid-2023, the government intends to expand federal licenses for management from just over 1 million hectares to 4 million (2.5 million to 10 million acres), a 300% increase. Planned offers cover areas in the north and south of the country and will even include tourism and carbon-trading ventures to mitigate against climate change.

Daniel Bentes, director of the Brazilian Association of Forestry Concessionaires, says the country’s management potential is even greater. “Concessions deliver only 2% of the domestic production of native wood. This is little when compared to the potential of 35 million hectares [86 million acres] for native forest management,” he says. The remaining 98% of domestic wood production is potentially tainted by illegality.

The potential area for authorized forest management in Brazil is 35 million hectares (86 million acres). Image courtesy of Vicente Sampaio/Imaflora.

But expanding the market for managed native wood depends on halting fraud in the logging and trade of ipê and other species. Analyses by civil society organizations such as Greenpeace show that companies inflate the number of trees per hectare that they legally harvest and the percentage of logs converted into sawn wood in order to sell wood taken from conservation units and Indigenous lands.

“Combating this situation depends on using automated systems and reducing human influence on processes and information,” Bentes says. “Otherwise, companies and communities that practice forest management and contribute to the conservation of the Amazon and other biomes will remain associated with illegal practices and suffer from illegal competition that does not value Brazil’s forest resources.”

Using other native woods can also ease the pressure on the most targeted trees. Just 10 types of trees account for 80% of the timber that leaves the Amazon, including ipê, massaranduba or bulletwood (Manilkara spp.), angelim (Hymenolobium spp.), jatobá (Hymenaea courbaril) and cumaru (Dipteryx odorata).

“We’ve tried to encourage the use of other types of wood in concession areas, but the market didn’t accept it,” says Carneiro from the SFB. “It’s hard to convince someone who wants an ipê deck to buy another species.”


Banner image of Amazonian tree logs loaded onto a truck for transport out of the forest. Image courtesy of Vicente Sampaio/Imaflora.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on July 14, 2022.

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