Trees provide a huge variety of products for humanity. However, it is their timber that provides the greatest economic contribution. From tropical forests alone, timber exports exceed US$20 billion per year, but this figure excludes the vast amount harvested, traded and used locally throughout the world.
Different trees species provide timber with varying strength, durability, resonance, colour and scent. As a result, certain tree species are preferred for a given purpose or end use, whether it be for building materials, veneers, furniture, musical instruments, boats, cricket bats and more.
The global demand for timber has put huge pressure on the wild populations of particular tree species. For example, rosewoods (genus Dalbergia) and ebonies (genus Diospyros) trees, are valued as a source of luxury furniture (a.k.a ‘hongmu’), have been logged intensively in recent years.
As a result, 80 species from these genera are afforded some protection from international trade after they were added to Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement to protect species at high risk of extinction from illegal international trafficking.
In fact, rosewood has become the most valuable trafficked wildlife product in the world, exceeding the value of ivory, tiger parts and rhino horn combined. This has resulted in militant poaching of some tree species in some parts of the world, often lead by international criminal syndicates who are also often involved in other major crimes including money laundering, people smuggling and drug trafficking.
As well as these extremely high-value species, there are hundreds of other tree species, that are threatened by illegal logging – a huge trade that leads to an estimated 100 million cubic metres of timber harvested each year.
What you can do
You can avoid contributing to illegal and unsustainable timber extraction by purchasing wood and paper products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC “tick tree” logo means you can buy these products with the confidence that you are not contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests.
Support companies actively supporting sustainable timber trade and use, including Sound and Fair, which supplies Fair Trade wood. By buying from suppliers that do not meet basic sustainability requirements or undertake proper due diligence in their supply chains, you could be funding illegal logging, deforestation, and undermine efforts by ethical companies to compete in the market.
You can also ensure any investments you make (or made on your behalf) are sustainable. For example, recently shortlisted for a Responsible Investor award, SPOTT supports investors and buyers by creating transparent assessments of the environmental standards of timber companies and publishing the results.
It is also possible to purchase timber from species less threatened with extinction. WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network have produced a fantastic guide to lesser-known tropical timber species. The guide helps you identify suitable substitute species that (a) have similar qualities and end uses to threatened timber species and (b) can be sourced sustainably through FSC certified suppliers.
Examples of just a few of the world’s threatened timber species
The Paraná Pine (Araucaria angustifolia)
This species is endemic to the Araucaria Moist Forests of south-eastern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. Since the 1500s, it has been valued as Brazil’s most important timber tree, used for everything from construction to pencils.
97% of the species’ original territory has been lost as a result of logging, followed by agricultural development, and the species is considered to be Critically Endangered.
The Honduras Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii)
From Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, this tree produces an incredibly dense timber making it ideal for the production of musical instruments.
Its durability also makes it attractive for making fingerboards for violins, veneers for fine furniture, knife handles and much more. Recent high international demand for its timber have decimated stocks across southern Belize although its recent inclusion in CITES Appendix II should afford it stronger protection.
The Chinese Coffin tree (Taiwania cryptomerioides)
This conifer is found in eastern Asia and can grow to 80m high. Its timber, being light, durable and pleasantly scented, is used to make a range of hhigh-qualityproducts including furniture, boats and coffins.
Logging and forest clearance have led to a major decline in its number and coffin makers – being heavily reliant on the timber – would see a great fall in income if it were to disappear.