Deep in the Chiquitana tropical dry forest in southeast Bolivia, Noine Picanerai stands on a dirt road that cuts through lush woods. The 50,000-acre plot looks like a protected reserve. But, notes Picanerai, a woodsman in his 70s, "My people live off selling these trees." Indeed, despite the forest's pristine appearance, it's a logging concession run by an indigenous Ayoreo community. The project, along with dozens of similar forest management programs across the Amazon region north of Bolivia, are making sustainable logging a reality instead of an oxymoron. "We aren't like the other guys," Picanerai says with a toothless grin. "We make sure the forest stays standing."
Each year more than 30 million acres (12 million hectares) of the world's natural forest are cut to satisfy global demand for wood and paper products. That deforestation, which reduces the planet's carbon dioxide-absorbing foliage, causes at least a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions today. South American forest management projects logging that assures tree regeneration are quietly growing into key conservation strategies in the fight against climate change. "These programs are about making the standing forest worth something to governments and communities," says Meg Symington, managing director for the Amazon for the World Wildlife Fund-USA, which supports sustainable forestry.
Bolivia, specifically its indigenous communities and their NGO advocates, has been a pioneer of this effort, and communities in Brazil, Peru and the Guyanas have jumped on board as well. The Chiquitana venture, established in 2001 in the town of Zapoco by the Ayoreos and an NGO called APCOB, with government approval and monitoring, was Bolivia's first indigenous-run forestry business. Its goal is to help save the dry forest which is South America's second-largest eco-system behind the Amazon rain forest, but whose trees are being felled at a faster rate than others on the continent while giving the rural poor a shot at a living wage.
Each year for 20 years, the Zapoco cooperative has license to log 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) filled with rosewood, tigerwood, caviuna and other exotic tree species for export to the U.S. and Europe. (On average about 6,000 trees are felled each year.) A tree census plots out the logging before it begins, and only mature trunks of a certain diameter are marked for chopping, while younger trees are left to grow and the healthiest of the lot are spared so their seeds can spread. "That one wasn't cut because it's got a parrot's nest," says Pedro Charupas, another Zapoco resident, motioning to a fully mature ironwood.
Zapoco, a town of 65 families managed by a council of elders, was founded in the late 1940s when Evangelical missionaries brought the nomadic Ayoreos into "civilization." But this is the first time since then that the community has been financially stable. "Our forestry project works because we know how to live and work with the forest," says Picanerai. The benefits stay in the community. "I buy food and clothes for my family with my stipend," says Juanita Chiqueño, a mother of five, who as a resident gets an average annual payment of $150 from the cooperative, which employs most of the town. Its profits also pay for schools, healthcare and trucks for the business. "When people outside Zapoco first saw our pick-up," says a laughing Picanerai, "they said, 'Oh, they must be trafficking drugs.'"
His jest reflects a dark reality: in Bolivia's remote forest regions, any income above survival level is often illicit. The wood trade is no exception. For a couple dollars, some Bolivian dry forest residents still guide pirate loggers to groves of precious trees; chainsaws can still be heard buzzing throughout the night in many parts. Zapoco's communal land, in fact, is bordered by state-owned forest pockmarked by smashed brush and newly exposed tree stubs. "They don't care what they cut down [there]," says Charupas, exasperated as he surveys a mangled expanse. But policing illegal logging is difficult: South America's exotic woods are in vast, remote areas and governments say they can't afford to station enough watchmen.
As a result, environmentalists stress that projects like Zapoco's are valuable deterrents since they prove the forest can be both preserved and profitable. But it's less clear if this model can work beyond indigenous groups who have an ancestral stake in the forests' longevity. Nor are the indigenous cooperatives without their problems. The isolated Ayoreos are admittedly not the most prepared business administrators and need regular help from outside groups like APCOB. The money they do make is scant compared to the robust profits reaped by the Bolivian wood exporters who buy the cooperative's trees.
Still, it's better that exporters buy from suppliers like the Ayoreos. Pablo Vaca Diez, owner of Bolivian exporter Petunos, which turns Zapoco's wood into deck flooring for the U.S. market, says his decision to buy from the cooperative was easy. "Why would I want a supply that could dry up in three years?" he asks. "It's much better from a business angle to be part of a sustainable model." Some corporations, like Hewlett Packard and Williams Sonoma, share that logic and are members of the WWF-led Global Forest & Trade Network, an alliance of more than 300 firms, NGOs and governments in more than 30 countries. They purchase only wood and paper products that originate from certified forest sources.
Such efforts are still the exception: billions of dollars worth of illegally harvested wood is estimated to enter the U.S. every year, despite 2008 legislation meant to thwart it. But as nations like the U.S. increase efforts to buy legally sourced wood, countries like Bolivia benefit due to projects like Zapoco's. Half of Bolivia's surface area, about 1.3 million acres (500,000 hectares) is forest, home to rare wood species whose value will grow as rain and dry forests alike disappear in other parts of the world. Picanerai says Zapoco often hosts visits from other indigenous communities eager to establish cooperatives. And that's why, says the elder, he's confident the seeds of sustainable logging will keep spreading.