Some thoughts..on deforestation

World deforestation is a growing problem and the solution seems about as intractable as any in the world today. I had thought that it was one problem that might lend itself to rational debate. The problem is abundantly clear, the magnitude is such that many areas of the world today are already largely deforested, (Malayasia, Borneo, etc.). Although special interests are involved in most nations where deforestation is a problem, they are usually in the minority and it would be hoped that the governments would be able to act in the general interests. The issues to consider are:

1. Special interests.
Often the deforestation is in the hands of large land-owners who profit immensely from the practice and who by their wealth exert a profound influence on the political process of the government.

2. Jobs.
The timber industry provides jobs in otherwise economically depressed countries which in turn settles and satisfies an important part of the population.

3. Land.
Much deforestation is practiced by nations seeking to settle huge numbers of landless peasants. Again, the practice is popular as long as it provides hope and settlement to a segment of the population.

Usually one would think that these influences are primarily restricted to "third-world" nations with little alternatives to create jobs or wealth. It has always been "easy" for people in the developed north to criticize the south for poor environmental practices, we have the wealth and leisure to take notice.

I recently got a sense of just how truly intractable the situation is. President Clinton, a liberal Democratic president set his administration the task of resolving the timber/environmental standoff over the spotted owl in the pacific northwest of the United States. The issues are relatively clear:

1. Deforestation is known to be causing severe degradation of the environment for native wildlife and fisheries. The spotted owl is merely the tip of a much larger problem.

2. Jobs are affected in every aspect of the situation including the forest industry, fisheries, and tourism among others. Jobs will be lost regardless of the solution.

3. Special interests and mis-information: the issues are constantly being clouded with debate on perceived problems not grounded on facts but which elicit strong emotions for one side or another, (for example, concern for the timber needs of the housing industry which in fact consumes a tiny proportion of the total harvest).

I was hopeful that Mr. Clinton's administration would successfully see through the cloud, especially since he and Mr. Gore the vice-president seem pre-disposed to understand the environmental issues and consequences of inaction. I feel that as a minimum the solution ought to include an immediate ban on exportation of raw timber from both public and private lands to Japan, (which primarily uses timber for disposable concrete molding.)

The proposed solution, or lack of one as it turns out, was a triumph for short-sighted policy and special interests. It immediately becomes apparent that if the United States cannot solve its own deforestation problem, it certainly cannot expect to speak with any authority concerning the world deforestation problem.

Solution? Recall that the equation has two sides, both supply and demand. It seems impossible to solve the problem while concentrating on the supply side, that is, to convince supplier nations to curb cutting and give up the wealth generated. Perhaps it might be possible to concentrate on the fewer nations that consume timber. Two tracts come to mind in the effort:

1. In a negative sense it might be possible to "ostracize" those nations who consume and waste timber. A concentrated effort on the one or two largest offenders could dramatically lower demand.

2. In a more positive sense it might be feasible to study the main uses of timber, (disposable concrete molding), and develop environmentally sound and hopefully less expensive alternatives.

20 August, 1993

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