Magazine

Indonesia's Chainsaw Massacre


Globalization has been tough on Indonesia's trees. They're disappearing at a rate equivalent to the area of 300 soccer fields every hour, gobbled up by loggers eager to turn them into plywood and planks for McMansions across the U.S. and Europe. That may offer Western consumers cheap lumber, but it's also wiping out an irreplaceable resource: Indonesia's lush rainforests. Apart from their sheer beauty, these vast tracts of virgin timber slow global warming by soaking up the growing emissions of carbon dioxide, and are home to thousands of diverse species of flora and fauna. The same forces of globalization that set the chain saws in motion might also be tapped to stop -- or at least slow -- the destruction. As the West's appetite for wood has grown, so has the activism of environmental groups. Western consumers are starting to listen when organizations such as Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace International point out the link between tropical logging and environmental devastation. That has caught the attention of corporate consumers of wood -- most notably Ikea and Home Depot -- which don't want to be associated with environmental destruction. So they've started scaling back their purchases from Indonesia, which in turn has forced the country's logging industry to wake up.

Now, a handful of Indonesian companies are working with environmental groups to harvest timber more sustainably. Eager to avoid a boycott of their wood, they believe that by cooperating with activists they can ensure continued access to export markets. These companies plan to tag their logs with bar codes that allow the tracing of a piece of wood from stump to store shelf. But they should be given a boost by the creation of a "Good Wood" label that would be trusted worldwide. Products bearing such a label might cost a bit more, but consumers would have the comfort of knowing their purchases are rewarding responsible loggers and helping to save the rainforests. One precedent would be the dolphin-free label on tuna, which had a powerful impact on consumer buying and sparked radical improvements in fishing practices.

Boycotts and bar codes, though, won't be enough. Banks need to make sure they're not fueling the problem by making loans that fund illicit or unsustainable logging. Multilateral institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank should accelerate their efforts to fund environmentally benign projects. And Asian governments and consumers must help out, too. Much of Indonesia's timber is smuggled to mills in Malaysia and China, and then sent to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore. Consumers there, too, need to make sure their money isn't fueling the destruction.

Logging is going to continue. Indonesia's poverty ensures that. But by taking an interest in what happens in Indonesia's rainforests, consumers and companies in the West can use the power of globalization to pressure timber companies there to act responsibly.


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