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SOS Rhino : In the News : "Green-tagged" wood arrives in local port

"Green-tagged" wood arrives in local port

  Crates and pallets of meranti, a species of rainforest tree common in Southeast Asia, are off-loaded at LambertÍs Point Terminal from the freighter Surya Kripa on Tuesday. Photo by Martin Smith-Rodden / The Virginian-Pilot.

By CAROLYN SHAPIRO, The Virginian-Pilot
© August 6, 2003

NORFOLK - The plywood sheets that came off the ship Tuesday at LambertÍs Point Docks shone with a smooth, reddish color in the noon sun.

The color marked them as meranti, a species of rainforest tree common in Southeast Asia. Its wood is popular in the United States for use in furniture, veneers and doors, and is also popular with illegal loggers.

But this batch of the wood unloaded at a Norfolk lumber warehouse Tuesday bore a unique stamp. White labels reading "RIL verified" identified 860 crates as the first shipment into the United States of Indonesian lumber harvested under a new program.

The reduced-impact logging program, or RIL, aims to protect a vulnerable environment and the people who live there while maintaining access to a desired product for U.S. companies.

The program originated with the Tropical Forest Foundation and a cluster of conservation groups, federal agencies and businesses - including The Home Depot Inc. Foundation officials described the program to some of the coalition members Tuesday as cranes slowly lowered crates of plywood from the Surya Kripa steamship.

The pilot program in Indonesia began about a year ago in a forest in West Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo near the Malaysian border. It promotes "legal" logging by rewarding loggers for cutting trees only in certain areas, taking only trees of a certain age and species and removing no more trees than permitted.

Trees get tagged, and auditors track them from stump to shipping point. Meanwhile, program officials train local workers in the least-damaging methods of building roads, cutting trees and dragging them through the forest.

"The objective was to really do something, get on the ground and teach good forest management," said O. Keister Evans, executive director of the Tropical Forest Foundation, which started the program in the Amazon River basin in Brazil.

"ItÍs not only more environmentally sound, itÍs more economically sound. It saves time, labor, fuel.ÍÍ

Illegal logging in Indonesia consumes about 5 million acres of forests each year and disrupts the livelihood of about 30 million indigenous people, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a sponsor of the RIL program.

Illegal activity wipes out forest at a rate of six soccer fields a minute, said Rebecca Maestri, of the Near East Bureau of USAID. Clear-cutting of swaths of forest and removal of immature trees has devastated the habitat of endangered species including the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the Asian one-horned white rhino and the Asian elephant.

The Bush administration brought attention to the problem last week when the State Department announced an initiative to fight illegal logging in developing countries.

The first wood harvested under the RIL program arrived at a warehouse operated by The Penrod Co., an importer of metal and wood based in Virginia Beach. The 860 crates - nearly 2 million pounds of plywood, stacked in 4-by-8-foot sheets - represented less than one-quarter of the 3,600 crates that came off the ship.

Outside of the pilot program, not all Indonesian lumber imports are harvested illegally, program officials said. However, they said Tuesday they have no way of knowing whether other wood that enters the United States is obtained properly.

PenrodÍs 350,000-square-foot warehouse imports about 5 percent of its volume from Indonesia today - a small amount because of the environmental and legal problems associated with it, said Carl Gade, PenrodÍs executive vice president and president of the foundationÍs board. Local lumber imports also come from Russia, China, Brazil, Equador, Malaysia, the Ivory Coast and other countries - some of them also targets of criticism over rainforest devastation.

Some environmental groups, such as the Rainforest Action Network, have argued against any import of lumber from Indonesia. That nationÍs policies fail to protect the land rights of the forestsÍ indigenous populations or to stop rampant corruption, making any certification program untenable, said Brant Olson, network spokesman.

"WeÍre dealing with forestry laws that were developed under a despotic regime," he said. "And thereÍs no way you can tell whatÍs legal or whatÍs not at this point." But RIL proponents said this project is monitored by an independent auditing agency called SmartWood, a certification program of the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group based in New York City.

"Not everyoneÍs a bandit," said Bruce Cabarle, director of the forest program of the World Wildlife Fund, an RIL project sponsor. "This is an example that despite those overwhelming odds, we can still make a difference."

Home Depot contributed $75,000 this year to the RIL programÍs $300,000 budget and has pledged to donate $1 million over five years. The company, the worldÍs largest lumber retailer, made a $3.7 billion profit in its last fiscal year and continues to buy a small amount of Indonesian products, despite pledging to stop selling wood from endangered forests by 2002.

Rainforest Action Network railed against Home Depot in May, when lumber giants International Paper Co. and Lanoga Corp. announced that they had stopped buying Indonesian pulp and wood.

But RIL program leaders touted industry for coming around to the cause. The project in Indonesia begins its second phase in October, with a goal of someday making "legal" logging the norm.