Costa Rica’s nearly $300 million timber industry is growing and gets almost threequarters of its wood from forest plantations, said a report released by the National Forestry Office.
“We see that 72 percent of wood comes from forest plantations. I want to stress that this is an investment by private producers with their own resources who decided to invest not in just any crop but in wood, which is an investment in the environment,” said Sebastian Ugalde, executive director of the Costa Rican Forestry Chamber.
“Wood is the only construction material that is environmentally friendly – biodegradable, renewable, recyclable and noncontaminating,” he said.
According to the study, just 9 percent of the wood processed and sold in 2007 came from forests. The rest, 19 percent, comes from lands that are primarily used for agriculture and grazing.
The National Forestry Office’s executive director, Alfonso Barrantes, however, said he believes the government should provide incentives to increase forest logging.
“As a country, we are betting too much on conservation, and we have forgotten over the past 10 years to invest in the sustainable production of wood,” he said.
The National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO), through its much-lauded Payments for Environmental Services program, doles out yearly payments to private landowners for protecting existing forests and reforesting land that has been logged or is being used for cattle or agriculture. More than 66,000 hectares (more than 160,000 acres) of land were being reforested or protected in 2007 through the program.
Until 2002, the program also provided cash incentives under the category “forest management,” which rewarded land owners who logged forest on their land sustainably, Barrantes said.
“Until 1996, the majority of the funds went to forest management, but over the last 10 to 12 years, nearly 90 percent of those resources have gone to forest protection.” Barrantes estimates that between 350,000 and 400,000 hectares of forest on private lands could be harvested sustainably.
“I go into a forest with more than 500 trees per hectare, with a diameter larger than 10 centimeters each, and I harvest between three and five every 15 years, and the forest remains there generating all the services of biodiversity and water protection,” he said.
While the amount of wood produced in Costa Rica has increased dramatically in recent years, it is the fruit of the investments into plantations made more than a decade ago. He worries, however, that as demand continues to increase nationally for wood, driven in part by the booming construction industry, which consumed 34 percent of wood harvested in 2007, the plantations will not be able to keep up.
“That will end up generating pressure on the forests and … for illegal logging,” said Barrantes.
Wood from forestry plantations, which often use fast-growing trees such as teak, tend to be of lesser quality because the trees harvested are smaller and not as strong, Barrantes said. As a result, Costa Rica has increased the amount of wood that it imports, as well as the amount of furniture.
While Costa Rica exported $47 million in raw wood in 2007, it imported $52 million – up from about $25 million two years earlier. Costa Rica exported $5 million worth of furniture last year but imported $22 million – almost $10 million more than in 2005.
The majority of raw wood exports were teak sent to India and Vietnam, while most imports of milled wood or worked wood products came from Chile and the United States.
“Either we buy it from Chile, which costs more, or we are going to see more illegal logging and pressure on the forests – and not only private forests but national parks and protected land,” Barrantes said.
Oscar Sánchez, FONAFIFO’s head of the Payments for Environmental Services program, acknowledged that payments no longer went to sustainable forestry, which he chalked up to a “decision by the (Environment, Energy and Telecommunications) Ministry.”
Sánchez said that landowners, if they follow regulations and apply for permits, may still carry out sustainable forestry, and then afterward apply for payments in one of the existing categories, such as protection.