You may be familiar with Ipe as the “King of Woods.” A species with almost unbelievable characteristics- natural resistance to rot, insect attack, and mold with density and hardness comparable to concrete. These features give Ipe and other tropical hardwoods the ability to outlast pretty much everything while providing unrivaled beauty and character. All of this is true. Ipe has been a staple in the decking, flooring, siding and furniture industries for many years for these reasons. Furthermore, in recent years, the prices of tropical hardwoods like Ipe, Cumaru, Purpleheart, Tigerwood, Massaranduba and Garapa will beat out even the mid-tier composite decking and siding alternatives. If that were the end of the story, these tropical hardwoods would be the market leaders for outdoor construction, hands down. Unfortunately, some narratives paint a darker picture of Ipe that is both misleading and endangers our native tropical forests.
With a growing number of companies competing for a piece of the construction materials market like decking, flooring and siding, there will always be a bit of mudslinging. One might think the obvious targets would be plastic or chemically treated lumber. Plastic materials, now marketed almost exclusively as “composite”, is a combination of plastic and wood pulp. It is true that many of these composite materials are made from recycled plastic, but did you know, when you combine plastic and wood pulp, the result is neither compostable or recyclable? These products never decompose and burden our landfills and seas. Read more on this topic in “Deck: Wood or Plastic” by Pablo Paster of treehugger.com. Chemically treated lumber, which includes pressure treated and reclaimed lumber, are notorious for their impact on the surrounding environment. These boards are known to leach toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil, killing local plant and animal life. A detailed analysis on the impacts of chemical leaching can be found in this USDA report. In fact, many municipalities now prohibit the use of PT woods over beach dunes because the chemicals they leach kill plants, like sea oats, which are very important for erosion control.
Despite the fact that tropical hardwoods do not contain plastics, toxic chemicals, or pollute the environment, Ipe has become the primary target for some. Contrary to a handful of sensational headlines- if the timber industry suffers in South America, so too will our rainforests. How can that be possible? Isn’t it good that trees aren’t being sourced from the tropical forests? The answer is… no, quite the contrary. Let me explain.
The Economics of Deforestation
The main concern for most people is deforestation, as it should be. It is certainly our main concern. Let’s start there. Deforestation, as defined by LiveScience.com, “is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, 80% of deforestation is a result of cattle. There’s no question that beef has been a booming industry for Brazil and other Latin American countries. This Holly Gibbs, 2005 study asserts that 98% of deforestation, in the Amazon, is happening as a result of just two industries; Cattle and Agriculture. This should make perfect sense. Cattle needs space to graze and agricultural plantations need cleared land to plant crops. The growing need for cleared land means the land is more valuable WITHOUT forests on them. Logging is not the primary cause of deforestation, “nor is it even the most important one. Clearance of forests (legal or illegal) for agriculture is far more significant,” according to a 2013 Chatham House report, a London based research organization. Deforestation is a problem that is driven by economics and it must be addressed by economics.
How do you make an economic case against clearing native forests when that’s where the money is? That is the question. One way this has been addressed in recent decades is eco-tourism. If you have any doubt that eco-tourism plays a role in protecting our natural environments, check out Red Panda’s, 2017 article, “A Unique Strength: How Ecotourism Can Save The World.” To put it plainly, eco-tourism helps create value in the natural environment that may otherwise be converted into alternative uses. Eco-tourism isn’t effective in protecting the vast wildernesses of the tropics, but this concept shows how applied economics can protect natural environments.
Logging Regulation and Regrowth: A Solution to Deforestation
Just as eco-tourism can protect the natural environment, so too can responsible forest management. Federal laws throughout most of Latin America, including Brazil, require specific selection and regrowth methods for harvesting timber (such as Ipe). In most countries, Brazil especially, the trees must be dead, dying or mature. Harvesting the dead, dying or mature trees, and replanting new ones allows the young trees to thrive and seedlings an opportunity to grow. This periodic method of harvesting is also known as silviculture and has shown to reduce the impact of logging in forests around the world. The image to the right shows a typical Ipe log, at a Brazilian mill site, felled after it was dead. The individual in the photo is the owner of Brazilian Wood Depot, a tropical hardwood organization known for their commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainability.
Low-impact logging has also been adopted as common practice within the industry. This means, leaving the surrounding environment in-tact. “Reduced-impact logging (RIL) techniques dramatically reduce residual damage to vegetation and soils, and they enhance the long-term economic viability of timber operations when compared to conventionally managed logging enterprises,” according to this 2012 Princeton University study. “Moreover, if RIL increases the economic value of selectively logged forests, it could help prevent them from being converted to agricultural plantations, which results in a tremendous loss of biodiversity.” Some articles suggest that sourcing Ipe involves clear cutting the surrounding forest. While this method of logging was evident in decades past, it is now banned in most Latin American countries, including Brazil. Clear cutting is not only unnecessary, time consuming, costly and illegal, it cuts directly against the motivations and longevity of the groups that harvest them. The only reason clear cutting still occurs is to repurpose the land for alternate uses; cattle or agriculture.
Regrowth requirements vary slightly by state or region but have minimum requirements set by the federales in accordance with the international CITES treaty. Since these species cannot typically be grown as Plantation Crops because either their root systems are too large or their maturity life is too long, regrowth typically occurs in the same or similar environments from which they were harvested. By re-growing the trees in their natural habitats, the forests they inhabit are protected by the organizations who planted them, the local/federal government or, in most cases, both. Experimental plots of plantation techniques are being tested by the IFT’s Forest Management Center, in Belem, to determine whether a combination of Parica, Mahogany and Ipe can be grown and harvested effectively, in rotating 30-year harvest cycles. This silvicultural method could one day further the availability of tropical hardwoods like Ipe. There are few commodities in the tropics that can help stop deforestation, economically, in large scale. The Timber Industry, with the appropriate forest management practices, is one of them. Without a responsible Timber industry creating value in naturally forested lands, the likelihood that they will be converted into cattle and agriculture uses are much higher.
There’s no question that illegal logging of tropical hardwoods has been a problem in decades past, and remains a concern going forward. Illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen by 50-75% from 2000-2010 according to this article by The Guardian based on a 2010 report by Chatham House. With the implementation of IBAMA, Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, in the early 2000’s, illegal logging organizations have largely been forced out. “The paperwork is so arduous that”, according to Marcia Teixeira of Timber Holdings USA, “illegal companies can’t survive.”
A 2015 interview with Ricardo Russo, a Brazilian World Wildlife Fund analyst, explains a few “myths” of the Brazilian timber industry. He first explains how the timber industry, being a low carbon emitting industry, is important because it, “guarantees jobs in the Amazon region… it is fundamental.” He states that the industry must continue to modernize in order to meet consumers’ needs while operating legally. While regulations are needed, they can also cut against their own purpose. If the regulations create a high enough cost to the end customer, the illegal trade market will take advantage because they have no overhead. In his words, the legal organizations, “will be strangled by excessive regulation.” According to this interview, careful regulation will continue to support the legal means while providing the essential, low carbon emitting, jobs in the Amazon region.
IBAMA is responsible for reviewing management plans, controlling and administering licenses, and overseeing inspections. According to a 2013 article by Landscape Architecture Magazine, “logging companies that use heavy machinery are limited to taking 30 cubic meters of lumber per hectare for each 35-year cutting cycle. Along with the protection of any endangered species…no trees smaller than 50 centimeters may be cut.” Furthermore, the Lacey Act, a U.S. federal law that bans the importation of illegal wildlife (flora or fauna), has required companies to be even more diligent about where they are sourcing their lumber. As Brazil and other neighboring countries develop their forest management programs, illegal logging is expected to continue to decline at considerable rates. The illegal logging that still occurs is largely traded either domestically or across the closest frontera (border). Certainly some, but very little, makes it through the rigorous IBAMA checkpoints throughout the country and the export locations, of which there are only a handful for tropical hardwoods like Ipe.
To give you an idea of the difficulty of moving Illegal timber out of Brazil, take a look at this map. 90% of the Ipe harvested from Brazil is coming out of Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Para, indicated by the large green circle. The logs are then sent to mills, typically located closer to the export locations, shown in red. As you can see from this street map, there are very few roads connecting interior Mato Grosso and Para to the export locations. IBAMA strategically sets up checkpoints for the loggers on these roads. If the hauled material does not meet the State/Federal guidelines for harvesting, both the logs and often the trucks, are confiscated. Steep penalties are also administered from the state and/or federal level. Each year IBAMA serves up to $10 Million USD in fines for improper or illegal logging practices. The idea that illegal loggers are operating widespread and unchecked today, is simply false. The image below shows part of the process at a standard IBAMA checkpoint. There have also been technological advancements at the checkpoints that help the IBAMA agents streamline the inspection process.
Increased Efficiency at IBAMA Checkpoints
In 2011, the IBAMA, Sao Paulo set out on one of the country’s most aggressive inspection campaigns. In that campaign, approximately 350 trucks and dozens of lumberyards were inspected in just two days. $1.2 million in fines were administered from the 50 violation notices that were served. It was the largest timber inspection for the state up to that point and it was accredited to both police strategy and a wood anatomy program at Instituto Florestal, the state’s forestry institute.
Dr. Sandra Florsheim, a researcher from Instituto Floresta’s Wood Laboratory, was among the first scientists who accompanied police to timber inspections in order to aid in identifying the wood species.
Dr. Florsheim could identify the genus and sometimes the species of lumber based on the anatomical structure. While their first campaign was undoubtedly a success, the strategy could not be scaled up to meet the needs statewide or throughout the country. The process needed streamlining for a larger, country-wide impact. Florsheim came up with a process that didn’t require a wood anatomy expert to be present at the checkpoints. She fitted the agents with portable microscopes (XyloTrons), capable of capturing images. The images were then sent to her team of technicians, analyzed, and a technical report identifying the lumber was sent back to the police, on-site. For more detailed information on the XyloTron, see. This strategy streamlined the identification process to only 15 minutes and relieved the need for on-site wood specialists. Success was also found in the numbers.
Each year, aside from 2009, the revenue created by fines greatly outweighed the personnel costs of the system. Dr. Florsheim’s identification process has now been adopted by dozens of agencies and over 500 officers. It is estimated that the team processes an average of 1,500 images per month, according to the World Resources Institute article, “Brazilian Police and Scientists Team Up to Crack Down on Illegal Timber Trade” July, 2015.
Consumer Awareness: How to purchase Ipe responsibly
From a consumer’s prospective, whether you are a homeowner, architect, designer, or conscientious contractor, it is important to purchase from companies that keep sustainability in mind. At the very least, from groups that know where their lumber is coming from. There are a few simple questions that can help consumers avoid purchasing tropical hardwoods from nefarious supply chains.
Does the company’s website look legitimate? If the answer is no, this may be a sign that the company doesn’t have much investment in the industry. This may indicate that they are brokering the lumber from different lumberyards. These groups usually don’t know where the lumber was sourced and are usually not sourcing direct from Brazil/Latin America. This uncertainty can lead to unethically sourced lumber.
Do they have a physical business address, and can you visit them? If the answer is no, then they are almost certainly brokers. These brokers often never see the actual lumber they are dealing. It goes from one lumberyard, which could be located anywhere, to the jobsite. Again, there’s no way for them to know how or where the lumber was sourced. If they do have a physical address, you should be able to visit them and see the inventory for yourself. If their warehouse is far away and you cannot visit, you should at least be able to confirm that it exists, and it is their warehouse based on Google Maps.
Do they have a substantial and consistent inventory? If the answer is no, they may have purchased a random bundle of lumber from a group that went out of business, leftovers from an abandoned jobsite, or material that another group needed to liquidate. There’s no way to know the source of lumber acquired like this which may increase the likelihood that it came from an untrustworthy supply chain.
Do they import directly from Brazil? If not, where do they get it? Ipe sourced from underdeveloped countries have a much higher likelihood of originating from unethical practices. While Brazil is still developing in many ways, it is leaps and bounds ahead of many of its Latin American counterparts in terms of responsible forest management and ethical employment practices. If it came from Brazil, the importer should be able to produce a Certification of Origin. They may not be willing to hand it over for you to keep, and that is understandable. But they should have one dated within the last 6-8 months that confirms they do receive hardwood shipments from Brazil.
Find a Trustworthy Source
Brazilian Wood Depot has been in business for over 15 years, has a warehouse located in Atlanta, welcomes customers during business hours and imports directly from qualified sources in Brazil. BWD operates with the highest level of integrity; from sourcing lumber to customer support. For the environmentally conscious, consider purchasing tropical hardwoods, like Ipe, from organizations like Brazilian Wood Depot. There are other reputable companies out there that have ethical sourcing practices. By using the questions above, you should be able to narrow down the responsible dealers fairly easily.
Ipe, Cumaru, Massaranduba, Tigerwood, Garapa and Purpleheart are all amazing species that provide incredible solutions for decking, siding and flooring. No other building material can compete with their incredible durability, natural beauty and 100% biodegradability. Concerns regarding how they are harvested and the impacts on our tropical forests are warranted. Deforestation of our tropical rainforests is an existential threat to people around the world. However, much of the negative content about Ipe and other tropical hardwoods is not only blatantly false, it harms one of the only industries that is protecting the forests from clear-cut activities like Beef and Agriculture. The timber associates that operate logging and milling businesses that are generations old and the Federal Forestry officials in Latin America care greatly about preserving their natural resources for generations to come. The great strides that have been taken in recent decades to ensure the sustainability of these forests are immense. Efforts to maintain an economic value for these forests and preserve them must continue. Consumers can help contribute to economic drivers that fight against clear-cut uses like Beef and Agriculture and promote furthering ethical logging practices by choosing to purchase from groups, like Brazilian Wood Depot, or other responsible hardwood dealers.