Rain Forest Boycott Questioned : Ecology: Brazilian environmentalists say Americans, other foreigners mean well, but the real solution requires financial aid, pressure on their government.


Dorival Correia Bruni, chairman of a Brazilian environmental society known as Biosfera, is dedicated to preserving the Amazon rain forest, but he disagrees with an American-led boycott of tropical hardwoods as a deterrent to forest destruction.

“That kind of action doesn’t contribute, in practice, to the preservation of the forest,” Bruni says.

Americans and other foreigners, it seems, are forever admonishing Brazilians to stop chopping down Amazon trees. And many Brazilians agree that action is needed to save the world’s biggest rain forest.

But Bruni and other environmentalists in Brazil see the Amazon deforestation problem as a complex one that a boycott can do little or nothing to solve. The boycott movement, they conclude, is well-intentioned but misdirected.


That does not necessarily indicate that the boycotters are wrong, but it may point to a need for better communication and coordination between environmentalists with common concerns about the Amazon.

The tropical timber boycott actually was launched in 1989 by an international alliance of indigenous groups whose livelihood depends on the rain forest. Alarmed at the rate of tropical forest destruction in the Philippines, Malaysia and Brazil, especially from logging, they signed a “call to action” and asked the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, to oversee it.

Like most environmentalists, RAN officials see the disappearing rain forests, which are crucial to the planet’s life-support system, as an emergency. With half the Earth’s tropical forests already burned, bulldozed and obliterated and the rest disappearing by an estimated 35.2 million acres a year, scientists project the rain forests will be gone before the end of the century if the pace is not slowed.

RAN tries to persuade builders, architects, carpenters, other woodworkers and consumers to avoid tropical hardwoods that do not come from “sustainable sources” such as reforestation projects or managed native forests.


Working with RAN are environmental groups in most of the industrialized nations that import tropical timber, says Pamela Wellner, who heads the group’s international boycott campaign.

She says the boycott is gaining momentum, and already Arizona and New York have passed legislation to bar the purchase by their state governments of tropical hardwood from non-sustainable sources. According to RAN officials, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley is among politicians supporting similar legislation in California.

Still, even experts don’t agree on the solutions for tropical deforestation, caused by a complicated mix of logging, agricultural and ranching activities.

Bruni declares that, to be effective, pressure should be applied by foreign governments, which also could offer resources to help Brazil prevent Amazon destruction. There is no doubt, he says, that the Brazilian government fails to protect the Amazon forest.


The Brazilian environmental protection agency, Ibama, lacks trained personnel, vehicles, aircraft and other equipment needed to patrol the vast area, Bruni further observes: “It isn’t possible to control the Amazon with one helicopter. Ibama has one helicopter for the whole Amazon.”

He notes: “Ninety percent of the Amazon is out of the government’s control. There has to be control. There has to be international pressure.”

Bruni proposes that organizations such as RAN undertake a lobbying campaign to demand financial support for Amazon protection from the U.S. government, the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, private multinational banks, charity foundations and other sources.

“The international community is full of good intentions, but help is minimal,” he concludes.


Meanwhile, Prof. Hugo Amorim, an expert in forest conservation at Rurul University in Rio de Janeiro, contends that commercial logging “is not the problem” in Amazon destruction. Logging operations are expensive and are not usually justified economically by the price of wood, he says.

What has caused most destruction in the Amazon, according to Amorim, is the migration of farmers from other parts of Brazil and the establishment of large cattle-ranching operations. Farmers and ranchers often sell selected species of trees, such as mahogany, to help pay for clearing forest. They cut and burn wood they cannot sell.

When Americans boycott Brazilian hardwoods, Amorim states, their action will not keep farmers and ranchers from deforesting their land.

Judson Valentim, president of the Acre State Technology Foundation, agrees: “The boycott may impede the purchase of those products, but it will not often impede the devastation of the forest.”


Small farmers cut down trees to plant food, he says, and “the people who are there need to eat to live.”

Valentim says 2 1/2 acres of Amazon forest can contain up to 300 usable species of wood, but only six to 12 have commercial value. If more of the species were used instead of burned, he suggests, “maybe there would be less pressure to deforest other areas.”

Maria Tereza Padua, president of the Rio-based Pro-Nature Foundation, believes a boycott of tropical hardwoods could even result in serious social problems in the Amazon region of Brazil, which has a population of more than 12 million. Economic development is needed to overcome widespread poverty in the region, she says, and rational use of forest resources must be part of the development process.

What is needed, she advises, is research and resources to perfect methods of exploiting timber and other products on a self-sustaining basis so that the standing forest will have long-term economic value.


“If it is worth nothing, it will be turned into a big ranch,” she says.

Likewise, Jean Dubois, a French-born forestry engineer who heads a nonprofit foundation called the Brazilian Agroforestry Network, says a boycott has little chance of decreasing the tropical timber trade. “It is a little bit too romantic, in my opinion,” Dubois says.

Most tropical hardwood from Brazil’s Amazon region goes to the Brazilian market, he explains, predicting that timber merchants will find a way around any regulations aimed at limiting exports of hardwood to those that come from sustainable sources.

Dubois outlines a strategy that he believes could more effectively control the exploitation of tropical hardwoods: Non-governmental organizations worldwide should organize committees to monitor forests in tropical countries. The committees should determine which countries are increasing the proportion of hardwoods taken from managed forests where sustainability is guaranteed. Based on those studies, governments of importing countries should set and enforce quotas for hardwood bought from exporting countries.


But Philip Fearnside, a research professor in ecology at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazon Research, says the big problem with that kind of proposal is that “tropical forests are not being managed on a sustainable basis.” And he says practices in Asia have shown that increased hardwood prices will not work as an incentive for more sustainable forest management.

“Forests are more valuable there, and the devastation is worse,” Fearnside says from his office at Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. “So that means there is something basically wrong with that theory.”

Disagreeing with many Brazilian environmentalists, Fearnside says a boycott “can have a positive effect--providing that it is made very clear how they can qualify not to be boycotted.”

Governments of exporting countries should set up a system for certifying tropical hardwood that comes from acceptable sources and “you’ve got to have some way of controlling it all the way along,” from forest to destination, he says. “I should think non-governmental organizations would be essential to the monitoring.”


If the certification process works, it will encourage the creation of sustainable forest management projects, Fearnside predicts, saying: “There needs to be a carrot as well as a stick.”

Meanwhile, RAN’s Wellner points out that the network, in addition to the boycott, also is directing its efforts at such underlying causes of deforestation as poverty, foreign debt and multilateral aid policies.

“We have a multi-part program to save the rain forests, including developing consumer alternatives and economic development,” she explains. “The ban is just one little part, and it is also a short-term solution. Definitely, they need economic help and other resources, but all the institutions that should help are very slow-moving.”

Staff writer Connie Koenenn, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.