Forest Management

Forestry Sector in a Data Debacle

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Every year the ITTO and FOA send a questionnaire to tropical wood producing nations in order to ascertain harvesting data and every year the responses are minimal. This lack of engagement represents a much larger problem with data collection inconsistency in the forestry sector which only promises to become worse, leading many analysts to call the current situation a ‘data debacle’.

In a 2017 study, conducted by Forest Industries Intelligence, on behalf of the Global Timber Forum (GTF), it was evidenced that there remained a: “complete lack of accessible information on the volume of timber harvested worldwide”. This isn’t to say that there exists a black hole of information surrounding the timber market. Instead, this makes clear that access to vital trade information is limited by untimely government publications, nation-specific data, wood product-specific data or information served up by environmental groups peppered by political overtures.

The Global Scope

To think this data collection failure is isolated to developing nations or the tropical wood sector would be a mistake. Any attempt to accurately evaluate the European-wide proliferation of a certain species, quickly becomes bogged down by record-keeping inequities. Some countries maintain accurate, publicly accessible, documentation that detail tree stands based on regular surveys. Whereas others, mainly in Eastern Europe, make no such commitment.

The increasing sense of concern felt by market analysts, industry professionals and environmental groups alike, was highlighted by Professor Nabuurs, a leading expert on European forests, speaking at the 2019 European Hardwood conference held in Berlin. At the conference, Professor Nabuurs stated: “We know very little about hardwood stocks, increment, and diameters in Europe. Data gathering needs to improve. EU member states are not sufficiently open with national forest inventory data and inventory methodologies are inconsistent between countries”.

Professor Nabuurs then goes on to describe the worrying future difficulties generated by this lack of cohesion: “the hardwood processing sector is not ready for the challenges coming at us; climate change, matching regional demand-supply, and fragmented ownership”. This evaluation is made particularly poignant following Nabuurs comments on the recent ash dieback pandemic that has devastated the species in Europe: “We hardly know how fast the ash decline is taking place”.

With combatting climate change fast becoming the primary objective of nations worldwide, the revelation that changes to the health of the global forest resource are going unnoticed, should be extremely concerning.

Evaluating Current Trade Data Sources

In stark contrast to the lack of good quality information on the volume of timber harvested and processed, worldwide deforestation rates are well scrutinised by environmental groups such as the WWF and Global Witness. These ENGO’s (Environmental Non-Governmental Organisation) make a concerted effort to follow the harvesting of timber around the globe, with regular reports on tree cover loss. As a consequence, ENGO’s often provide the most detailed information on production data and market participants.

However, this information is rarely accessible for industry members and often formulated in a manner that attempts to damage the public perception of the timber trade by portraying the entire market as unsustainable. Understandably, the readership of these reports by market participants is unlikely ever to rise.

Meanwhile, there remains hardly any information on wood conversion efficiency in different countries and sectors or on applications and uses of co-products and waste disposal. These issues are critical to both improve efficiency of wood use and for reliable assessment of trade flows and life cycle environmental impacts of wood products.

Of greater concern still, efforts to quantify the illegal trade of wood products and lumber remain entirely inadequate. As stated in the 2017 paper published by GTF: “Efforts to improve on the estimates that exist are limited – so much so that a new paper (published December 2016) by IUFRO on Quantifying Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade…was forced to rely on very crude and subjective estimates, some dating back over a decade”. 

As aforementioned, there do exist various public sector publications. Oftentimes the information provided by these outlets is of a high quality, however many of the organisations that provide the information have no obligation to do so regularly.

Both the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), produce annual reports on wood product markets. However, as the 2017 GTF study states these: “have a lengthy gestation period and may be out of date before they are published”.

The report goes on to further critique these publications by commenting: “The target audience of such reports is also not always clear. Most are written to be accessible only to other policy-makers and consultants and the content may be too technical for a wider audience”.

It is therefore unsurprising that many market analysts are calling for these monopolising public sector either to significantly up their game or, if they are unable to do that, to get out of the way so that independent journals in the private sector can better compete to provide industry professionals with more accurate and timely market data.

A Model Example

The arguments for allowing private trade journals more access to reporting on market data and forest resource health is strong. A model system of regular data collection is demonstrated in the US where a small number of high quality private publications compete for market reporting dominance.

The consequence of this free-market approach to forestry journalism, is the provision of high quality, regular and affordable data outlets to industry professionals and governmental bodies alike. A system that allows environmental groups to evaluate the effects of climate change and market analysts to view the volumes of timber crop removed and the economics of price indices.

In light of the clear deficiency of data on: volumes of harvested timber, wood-products trade flows between and within developing countries, consistent information on the extent of sustainable forest operations, value of production and trade flows of third party certified wood products, the global timber trade community must reassess its methods and sources of data provision.

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