Ipe’s Sustainability Problems… and the Solutions

King of Woods

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. The questions this article will tackle are, ‘Is using Ipe bad for the environment? Does it contribute to deforestation of our rainforests? And is it sustainable?’ But first, for the uninitiated, What is Ipe?

What is Ipe Wood?

Ipe Wood

According to The Wood Database, Ipe is among the hardest wood in the world. Its commercial uses span from furniture building to decking, siding and flooring. It grows throughout the tropical regions of Latin America from Mexico, to southern South America. Ipe can be found in rural, suburban and urban areas. The trees themselves produce flowers ranging from red and pink to golden yellow. The name Ipe can technically refer to seven species of trees in the genus Tabebuia, but the scientific name for commercially popular Ipe is Handroanthus spp. Alternatives to Ipe would include Cumaru, Massaranduba, Purpleheart, Tigerwood and Garapa. These species are all similar to Ipe in many ways, including hardness, durability, and resistance to rot and decay.

Ipe, Plastic and Composite Decking on the Local Environment

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, for environmental reasons, would be plastic construction materials. It is common knowledge that plastics are polluting our oceans, are non-biodegradable, utilizes petroleum resources and have numerous negative manufacturing externalities. One common misconception is that composite materials are more environmentally sound than plastic materials.

Composite materials are a combination of plastic and wood pulp, both of which are recyclable, individually. However, according to treehugger.com, once the plastic and wood pulp are combined to make composite lumber, the material is no longer compostable or recyclable. So in some ways composite materials, like composite decking, are less environmentally sound than plastic decking. Some coastal municipalities have even gone as far as to prohibit the use of plastic and composite decking for marine applications. When strong winds detach structures from the shore, plastic and composite materials never breakdown, contributing to ocean pollution. All of this said, both plastic and composite materials negatively impact the environment by way of pollution, petroleum use, and non-biodegradability.

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 the local plant and animal life, according to a recent USDA report. In response to the growing concerns over chemical leaching, many municipalities now prohibit the use of PT woods over beach dunes. The chemicals used to treat the wood kill plants, like sea oats, which are very important for erosion control. Reclaimed lumber is ‘bleached’ with very powerful chemicals that are known to be toxic to humans. Some sources even go as far to suggest that children shouldn’t come in contact with reclaimed woods because of the potential health hazards. The list of negative externalities for treating reclaimed lumber is, likely, just as long as the list for plastic materials. In both cases, with pressure treated or reclaimed lumber, the chemical treatment process is necessary for the boards to be a viable construction material. As a decking material, neither option provides an environmentally safe solution.

Alternatively, Ipe and other Brazilian Hardwoods are 100% natural. They do not contain plastics, chemicals, or pollute the environment. They can be repurposed after their use as decking or siding and they are 100% biodegradable. At the point of installation and after, it is fair to say, Ipe is very environmentally friendly. But the question remains, ‘Does purchasing Ipe contribute to deforestation?’

One Country’s Solution to Deforestation

Solution to Deforestation

Deforestation is a growing concern, and choosing environmentally conscious lumber is important. Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests to make the land available for other uses. 80% of deforestation is a result of cattle, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In fact, 98% of deforestation in the Amazon is a combined result of the cattle and agriculture industry. Cattle needs space to graze, and agricultural plantations are incentivized to clear forest areas for their crops.

According to a 2013 Chatham House report, “Ending Global Deforestation: Policy Options for Consumer Countries” drivers of deforestation are “complex and interconnected.” However, an examination into the economic forces that promote deforestation can also explain how certain industries can help limit the extent of deforestation.

Eco-tourism helps to preserve wild spaces worldwide and gives communities a practical incentive to protect wild areas. It also helps create value in the natural environment that may otherwise be converted into alternative uses. In addition, eco-tourism provides low carbon emitting jobs and supports local economies which can be key to an area’s success, particularly in remote or less developed regions.

Take Costa Rica, for example. According to nathab.com, “a national understanding of the value of Costa Rica’s forests resulted in mandates for a significant portion of the country to be protected as national parks and reserves, providing the opportunity for revenue from ecotourism and alternative forms of forest based economic activity.” This article goes on to describe how similar neighboring countries have been “threatened by economic pressures that resulted in the ongoing deforestation.” However, because Costa Rica “stayed on course with its conservation policies” the Central American country now hosts 5% of the world’s biodiversity, “allowing the tourist industry as a significant economic driver to expand further.”

This concept shows how applied economics can preserve natural environments from overdevelopment and deforestation. Of course, eco-tourism cannot be effective in protecting the vast wildernesses of the rainforests. So, besides eco-tourism what other industries have legitimate economic interest in protecting natural forests?

Fighting Deforestation in the Amazon: Timber and Fishing

Timber and Fishing

Just as eco-tourism can protect the natural environment by economic means, so can responsible forest management. According to Scholastic.com, the major industries of Brazil include, Services, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Mining, Forestry, Fishing, Energy, Trade, Transportation, and Communication. As stated earlier in this article, the largest drivers of deforestation are the cattle and agriculture industries. These industries are powerful monoliths that only value land cleared of all natural plant life and forests. Alternatively, the Timber Industry sees maximized value in healthy, natural forests. Forestry and Fishing are the only industries that have short and long term financial interest in keeping natural forests healthy and thriving. Just as eco-tourism places value on the natural environment, such as the case with Costa Rica, responsible forest management and the Timber industry creates value in naturally forested lands.

Conventional thinking might follow that, ‘if consumers purchase less tropical hardwoods, our forests will be more protected.’ This is factually and provably false. When the legal trade of tropical hardwoods decreases, the illegal trade increases. This is substantiated by Brazilian World Wildlife Fund expert, Ricardo Russo, mentioned later in this article. Illegal trading of timber is, by definition, uncontrolled and therefore devastates the natural forests. By purchasing legally traded tropical hardwoods, consumers are helping to encourage the enforcement of state and federal regulations meant to protect the forests from which they are sourced. These purchases provide the economic value of sustaining the forests just like eco-tourism provides the value in Costa Rica’s natural forests and habitat. Later in this article, I’ll go over how to find and choose providers of responsibly sourced Ipe.

Harvesting Ipe and Sustainabilty

Commercially available Ipe generally comes from South American countries like Brazil and Bolivia. Loggers harvest dead, dying and mature trees and replant new trees, as mandated by law. The trees to be harvested are chosen individually, under government supervision, based on the number of trees in a given area. Replacing these trees with new healthy seedlings provides the necessary sun exposure for the healthy new growth. Government sourcing regulation and regrowth requirements drastically enhances the sustainability of forests around the world.

The image below shows a typical Ipe log, at a Brazilian mill site, harvested after the tree 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.

a typical Ipe log

Low-impact logging encourages the sustainable sourcing of Ipe lumber, and it has become a common practice within the industry to leave the surrounding environment protected. Reduced-impact logging (RIL) techniques reduce residual damage to vegetation and soils and enhance the long-term economic viability of timber operations when compared to conventionally managed logging enterprises. Additionally, the economic value of selectively logged forests prevents them from being converted into agricultural plantations, which results in a tremendous loss of biodiversity.

Most Latin American countries, including Brazil, have banned the clear cut sourcing of Ipe and adopted forms of RIL. 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. Unfortunately, clear-cutting still occurs in order to repurpose the land for alternative uses such as cattle and agriculture. The images below show a fell by RIL techniques, on the left, and clear cutting techniques for agriculture, on the right.

RIL techniques

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, regrowth usually 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 is highly sustainable and 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. Moreover, without the consumer support of legally sourced lumber, the trade of illegal lumber will inevitably increase which is devastating to the forests natural biodiversity.

Timber Industry in the Amazon: Fundamental and Essential

There’s no question that illegal logging of tropical hardwoods has been a problem in decades past, and remains a concern going forward. However, 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 2000s, illegal logging organizations have mostly 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 essential because it guarantees fundamental jobs in the Amazon region. He states that the industry must continue to modernize to meet consumers’ needs while operating legally.

While regulations are needed, they can also cut against their intended purpose. If the laws 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 government must be careful in implementing logging policies otherwise, “the legal organizations will be strangled by excessive regulation.” This would only ensure and expedite illegal logging. Russo explains that careful supervision will continue to support the lawful means while providing the essential low carbon emitting jobs in the Amazon region.

Ipe Logging: Regulation and Enforcement

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 unlawful logging that still occurs is mainly 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 the map above. 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. There are very few roads connecting interior Mato Grosso and Para, and 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, Sao Paulo set out on one of the country’s most aggressive inspection campaigns. IBAMA inspected approximately 350 trucks and dozens of lumber yards in just two days and administered $1.2 million in fines due to 50 violations. It was the most significant 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 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 on a statewide or national level. The process needed streamlining for a more substantial, 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. This strategy streamlined the identification process to only 15 minutes and relieved the need for on-site wood specialists.

Each year, aside from 2009, the revenue created by fines greatly outweighed the personnel costs of the system. Dozens of agencies and over 500 officers have adopted Dr. Florsheim’s identification process. It is estimated that the team processes an average of 1,500 images per month, thanks to Dr. Florsheim’s process.

Consumer Awareness: How to Purchase Ipe Responsibly

From a consumer’s perspective, it is crucial to buy from companies that keep sustainability in mind and know the source of their lumber supplies. 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. A suspicious website may indicate that they are brokering the lumber from different lumber yards. These groups usually don’t know where the lumber was sourced and are generally not sourcing directly 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 responsibly sourced, 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.

Responsibly Sourced Ipe Decking Solutions

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 are not only blatantly false, but it also 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. Learn more about our Ipe decking pricing and installation solutions and purchase responsibly sourced Ipe from a reputable dealer and help us ensure the sustainability of our natural forests.