The art of the deal: selling loggers on tree-saving practices that make money

Second of a three-part series. To see the first part, click here.

SUNGAI NGIHIS, Indonesia -- In 2009, Bambang Wahyudi, a new recruit of the Nature Conservancy, solved a puzzle that made many conservationists scratch their heads: how to get timber producers to willingly switch to greener logging techniques.

Sitting with a visiting reporter on a recent day, Wahyudi explained his strategy. "I came to a logging company owner and made a presentation," Wahyudi said. "But I talked about business."

Wahyudi told the company owner how switching to greener logging techniques could cut his costs. Having well-planned routes, for instance, will help operators quickly collect logs from the forest rather than drive around to look for felled trees. "The owner said, 'That's a good idea. OK!'" Wahyudi recalled, with a huge smile on his face.


Wahyudi's approach got Karya Lestari, a timber producer in East Kalimantan's Berau District, to become a pioneer of implementing reduced-impact logging. The company has agreed to test the idea in a 100-hectare (247-acre) cutting block, with some work already underway.

Much is expected of this demonstration. Timber producers hope it will give their business a boost. Environmentalists want it to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the logging operation by at least 30 percent. More importantly, according to the project developers, it will help raise acceptance of climate-friendly practices in the logging industry.

Although conservation groups worldwide have poured substantial amounts of money and manpower into promoting sustainable forest management in commercial logging concessions, there is an acknowledged failure to realize that concept in many places of the world due to uncertain political willingness, a lack of capacity and outright resistance from some timber producers.

To avoid the same failure, the Nature Conservancy and others behind the reduced-impact logging project in Berau made it clear: While it is crucial to mitigate forest destruction and therefore carbon emissions, it is also important to protect the profitability of the logging company as it helps achieve the goal.

So instead of persuading loggers to save forests at the expense of profits, scientists have tried their general best to find emissions reduction solutions that do not disturb the timber production output.

Using ex-loggers as salesmen

Standing next to a tree stump in a tropical forest the other day, two scientists from the Nature Conservancy discussed with loggers how to identify hollow trees before cutting them down. Hollow trees have low commercial value.

Jayin Ifung, a logger with working experience of more than a decade, told the scientists that he first checks the shape of a tree and then uses his chain saw to hit the tree, listening to the sound just like what customers do to check watermelons. Still, Ifung said that for every 10 trees he cuts down, two or three are hollow. He is not happy about that, Ifung added, because he does not get paid for felling a hollow tree.

"Do you want to learn a new way of identifying hollow trees?" one scientist asked. The pitch began.

For many scientists who have spent years persuading loggers to mitigate forest destruction, introducing techniques that are both green and economically valuable is a winning approach. However, it is not resistance-free.

Shortly after a presentation the Nature Conservancy made to promote lower-impact logging techniques, a manager from the logging company said that "reduced-impact logging is a good system to protect our forests. But on the ground, we still have a big question.

"We must gain profits," the manager went on. "We hope we can sell our timber with higher prices by implementing reduced-impact logging. We are hoping, but we do not know."

The Nature Conservancy plans to track the expenses associated with operating reduced-impact logging practice in the pilot. Even so, doubts persist because the cost study of a 100-hectare cutting block may not reflect the situation where logging operations take place on a larger scale.

"Starting from the Ministry of Forestry as regulators to logging company owners as participants, our biggest challenge is to convince them that reduced-impact logging practice will not disturb business; it will still keep them profitable," said Delon Marthinus, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy's Jakarta office.

"Once they are confident about this, I believe they will support us," Marthinus said. "But now, it is a little bit difficult. We will need a great strategy."

Incentives for lower CO2 emissions

Part of that strategy is to hire staffers like Bambang Wahyudi, who has already gained trust from logging company managers because he managed a logging concession in Berau for more than 20 years. (His respect for his wife, who comes from that area, moved him to seek a balance between timber production and forest protection.)

Scientists have also learned the art of selling. Peter Ellis, for one, recently turned a rejection into an opportunity. When a logging company manager was hesitant to try a proposed technique because it is labor-intensive, Ellis told the manager that's exactly why he should opt for reduced-impact logging.

"Reduced-impact logging practices are like a menu," Ellis said. "If one technique is not appropriate in your logging concession, you can always choose another one."

But not disturbing business alone may not get company executives excited, so Ellis and his colleagues are scrambling for ways to bring in additional benefits from reduced-impact logging.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners have developed a method that can measure the amounts of carbon dioxide timber producers prevent from entering the atmosphere, the first of its kind in the world.

With the help of the new method, which is scheduled to go online later this year, timber producers will be able to sell their verified emission reduction credits to a voluntary carbon market. They may also enjoy financial rewards from international organizations.

The World Bank, for one, has raised more than $460 million specifically for targeting mitigation actions in the tropics. The government of Indonesia has proposed Berau District in East Kalimantan as one of the areas for the carbon fund.

Pitches that hit the bottom line

But there is another challenge. As Thomas Enters, a forestry expert at the U.N. Environment Programme, pointed out, to produce positive results logging companies will have to invest first, particularly in training and operation planning. Companies are often reluctant to take on the initial cost, Enters said, and that has resulted in limited progress in improving logging operations.

Now the Nature Conservancy is helping to ease the upfront investment pressure by providing loggers free training. The organization also opened its own wallet to rent lower-impact logging equipment, allowing timber producers to experience it before buying. The bet is that once company executives see the difference, they will be willing to invest in reduced-impact logging.

That transformation may come at a slow pace. While watching a mono-cable winch -- a much smaller winching machine compared with widely used bulldozers -- slide logs out on narrow trails like a forest snake moving between trees, Endang Nurhadi, a logging company manager, said he noticed it caused less damage and consumed less fuel -- using 5 liters (1 gallon) of diesel per day instead of the 200 liters (53 gallons) a bulldozer needs. However, Nurhadi said, he is still not satisfied.

Nurhadi told the scientists he wanted to see how the winching machine competes with the traditional logging equipment on a daily basis. How much time will it take to operate in a large-scale timber harvesting area? Will the machine break down often?

Scientists at the Nature Conservancy do not have all the answers, but they are eager to find out. As Bronson Griscom, the project leader, once explained in his blog post: "Conservation needs to move past ideology to constructive action. The astonishing diversity of tropical forests, the people who live in and near them, and our climate all depend upon it."

Tomorrow: Can tribesmen become protectors?

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