The tropical hardwood industry is a major contributor to rainforest destruction. Tropical forests are exceptionally diverse–a recent estimate suggests there are between 40,000 and 53,000 tree species globally. However, the forest products industry provides a decent market for only a small handful of these species. In 2007, the US imported 217 tropical hardwood species, but only a small fraction of these are well-branded with significant sales. The result is that tropical timber supply chains drive excessive exploitation of a few “high-value species” that are well branded. After the harvest, they leave behind degraded forests that have very low economic value for forest communities. Logging operations create new roads into the forests, which open access to global agricultural markets. Forest communities respond by converting their low-value, exploited forests to crops and cattle pasture. 70% of deforestation in Latin America follows this pattern.
Whole Forest works with 500 colonist families in four communities in the northern coastal plain of Ecuador. This region supports the last remnants of Ecuador’s Chocó rainforest, one of the most threatened forest ecosystems in Latin America. Only 5% of the original forest remains. Thirty-five years ago, campesino families settled in the intact native forests where we operate. Once there, they engaged in clearing parts of the forest for agriculture. Twenty years ago, a large plywood company built a road system into the watershed to buy timber. The road accelerated more intensive deforestation. Today, most families in this watershed make a subsistence living growing cacao and African oil palm, grazing cattle, and illegal logging.