Logging for the Trees
In Bolivia, Fighting Deforestation With Forestry
Spring 2009 - Nature Conservancy

Before 2003, when Nature Conservancy biologist Steffen Reichle found himself charged with helping to protect Bolivia's forests, he never expected that logging might be the answer. But in a country where swaths of forest the size of Yosemite are cleared each year to make way for crops and plantations, Reichle found himself working with a team that was charting a new kind of conservation -- one in which selective logging by local communities could actually save the forests.

About one-third of Bolivia's 118 million forested acres are owned by traditional and indigenous communities, which have often had no choice but to sell to farmers or timber companies to raise money. With more than 75 percent of these communities living below the poverty line, Reichle knew that if the people had incentives, they might choose to protect their forests in the future. "We had to make those forests financially valuable to the communities so that they would fight to preserve them, rather than sell them off," he says.

Reichle and his colleagues at the Bolivian Institute for Forest Research began studying the local habitat to determine whether selective logging would adversely affect wildlife. He has helped monitor about 50 species of reptiles, birds and amphibians in carefully logged plots. Now the team has found their answer: "We've seen no significant loss of biodiversity," says Reichle.

As part of this effort, the Conservancy partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bolivian government to train local communities in sustainable forestry. The Bolivia Sustainable Forest Management Project, or BOLFOR II, trains community members to identify and harvest commercially valuable trees and to negotiate sales contracts with timber buyers. The project even helps Bolivian manufacturers get financing for timber purchases, and it facilitates negotiations for exporting timber. With the project's help, Bolivia has designated 13 million acres of forest for sustainable uses.

As a result, the communities netted nearly $1 million in sales contracts in 2007, and participating families have seen an increase of 23 percent in their forestry-related incomes.

While demand for trees is up, Reichle says he sees few negative impacts from sustainable harvests. "Even if a community removes a few more trees each year than ecologists recommend," he says, "the increased impact is considerably less than reducing that forest to a soy field."

--Cara Goodman