endangered species


(and you may never again see a cardboard box or a wooden pallet in the same innocent light)

Wood in the service of mankind, 6: The Big Picture

The lumbering story of how our appetite for timber and (wood) fibre has rocketed in the last twenty years, and how Northern consumers are outsourcing their supply chains, and (perhaps unthinkingly) their consciences to the “Global South”. How on our behalf the “Big Box Retailers” ( Walmart, IKEA, Carrefour, Tesco and many others) are driving down costs to the point where the supply chains suck in illegal logging from countries with weak governance and poor health and safety arrangements.

Did you know?

  • Annual global timber production runs at around 3.6 billion cubic metres, or around 1.5% of the global timber reserve.
  • Around 50% of this is used for “global industrial” purposes. The other half is consumed locally for fuel and cooking etc.
  • 50% of timber by value is used for “pulp” products – covering everything from toilet paper and disposable nappies to playing cards and traditional (analogue) books.
  • “Pulp” includes the enormous quantities of packaging consumed by the big box retailers to satisfy our consumer appetites – a global middle class forecast to triple by the year 2030.
  • Developed countries – with 20% of world population – consume 75% of solid wood (“roundwood”) harvested and around two thirds of all paper products.
  • Per capita consumption of paper products in industrialised countries is estimated at 200Kg per annum.
  • One Company in Brazil (Fibria) controls 37% of the global market in eucalyptus pulp – highly favored for the production of super soft toilet tissue.
  • Estimates suggest that 40% of wood imports into China, the new “wood workshop of the world”, are sourced through illegally logged timber. Most is then re-exported to first world markets.
  • Walmart has 10,000 separate suppliers in China, and is that country’s 6th largest trading partner
  • IKEA markets 9000 wood products and annually produces 200 million (wood fibre based) catalogues in 27 languages in 38 countries.
  • US households receive an estimated total of 100 BILLION pieces of junk mail every year, consuming around 100 million trees to produce it.

The first 5 chapters of this book are a depressing and shocking tale of how the biodiverse resources of the “Global South” are being consumed by excessive appetite in the North. As a life-long member of that exclusive Northern club it would be hypocritical for me to preach to fellow members, or to criticize individual producers. IKEA and the big box retailers are here to stay. We can never return to a cosy world of local artisans, to William Morris or Grinling Gibbons.

But as the final chapter explains (with guarded optimism) there are opportunities, as well as imperatives, to encourage and enforce better governance and improved sustainability, by leveraging the power of the “big box retailers”. No doubt many who have studied these issues much closer than me, and have plumbed the depths of corporate cynicism, will scoff at the idea of these Wall Street driven juggernauts offering anything more substantial than greenwash. But there are some promising signs.

For example, the Forest Footprint Disclosure project aims both to improve transparency in global corporate supply chains, and also to inform us consumers so that we can differentiate between  products produced in more  and less harmful ways. (Just visit – And the European Timber Retail Coalition (formed in 2010) is working to ensure minimum “ethical” standards for timber sold in the EU. Even IKEA is now producing an annual sustainability report (but hopefully not 200 million hard copies), and is apparently conducting unannounced audits of its Chinese suppliers.

Will these private sector governance initiatives be enough? The authors remain cautious, and give the impression that they think not: governments, voluntary civil agencies and increasingly eco-conscious consumers will also need to play their part. And that last and important group includes you and me…


One final irony: “Timber” isn’t available in forest friendly Kindle format. So if you have an Amazon Kindle account, then tell the publisher NOW: “I’d like to read this book on Kindle”.

Tell the publisher you’d like to read it in e-book format!


Abu Dhabi enjoys a curiously Janus like reputation in the Middle East.

Looking east from Riyadh, the emirate looks brash and glitzy, an alluringly modern young man, but looking west from fantasy Dubai it seems dour and conservative –  a kill-joy parent only good to bail you out when things get out of hand. Relatives can be hard to handle.

Warner Brothers were refused permission to film Sex and The City 2 in the emirate, and had to settle for Morocco, slyly inserting shots of Abu Dhabi later. But this didn’t stop the New York Times from slamming both the film and the (feigned) location:

“Sex and the City 2 flees into a never-never land that manages to be both an escape from contemporary reality and an off-key, out-of-touch mirror of it. The emirate to which the four friends repair is an oasis of gilded luxury in a world that has grown a little ambivalent about unbridled commodity fetishism… The ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.”

So what – I hear you grumbling – has all this got to do with trees?

Well, to try to make some sense of all this ambiguity I decided to apply my newly invented Hoggs-Bison® googlemetric* which provides a measure of a civilization based on how a community chooses to interact with its trees. So – skipping lightly over the ominous news that many of Abu Dhabi’s palm trees are imported from Florida – here is the evidence for the prosecution, based on a random selection of recent news items portraying the emirate’s sylvan behaviour.

1. Abu Dhabi Hotel Regrets $11 Million Christmas Tree

In December 2010 The Huffington Post reported that “An Abu Dhabi luxury hotel that boasted an $11 million Christmas tree decorated with gold and gems admitted Sunday it may have taken the holiday spirit a bit too far. A statement from the Emirates Palace hotel said it regretted ‘attempts to overload’ the Christmas tree tradition by adorning it with premium bling including gold, rubies, diamonds and other precious stones from a hotel jeweler”. The hotel later retracted its statement of regret, and three months later the tree made the Guinness Book of Records (“The most expensive Christmas tree ever created”).

Christmas Bling

2.  800 year old olive tree planted in Abu Dhabi Development

In July 2011 reported that this 800 year old olive tree – imported from Lebanon – has been planted on a new business and residential development as a “centerpiece to be something unique”  chosen for its “character and historic significance”. A new twist on Lebanon’s 6000 year timber exports.

never too old to travel?

3. Excessive watering poses danger to date palm trees in Abu Dhabi

In June this year, reported that date palms, which apparently need 300 litres of water a day to flourish, are routinely being given 2100 litres, making them susceptible to weak roots, pests and disease.  Abu Dhabi has the highest per capita water consumption in the world – 550 litres per day, compared to the global average of 350 litres, and the agricultural sector alone consumes 1.5 billion cubic litres of water a year, which is 52 per cent of the total consumption of the emirate.

4. Goats in a Ghaf

By way of contrast, here is Prosopis cineraria, known locally as the Ghaf tree, the UAE’s national tree, which is currently threatened by over-grazing (goats) and over chopping (humans).

stately ghaf, the UAE national tree

and just in case you doubt the destructive power of goats…

goat power

but we are straying from the City…

So how best can we make sense of all this? The Green Prophet blog (a “sustainable voice for green news on the Middle East region” – pointed out in November 2011 that an ongoing campaign to plant one million trees in Abu Dhabi (admirable in itself) seems like one more luxury the Emirate can scarcely afford. Apparently The Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) has planted one million trees in four years in order to stave off climate change and desertification, and to restore its heritage of indigenous trees, but as Green Prophet so neatly summarizes the conundrum:

“Without trees, the planet will heat up even faster and our air quality will worsen. Without water, on the other hand, life simply can’t exist; life grows where water flows.”

Abu Dhabi: paragon or pastiche? You decide.

* the  Hoggs-Bison® googlemetric uses modern browser technology to evaluate the level of porkies oversimplification and good old PRBS in modern spin generated sound-bites. 

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” (Benjamin Franklin).

stamped and catalogued…

Today, I found Franklinia alatamaha, a very fitting specimen for the 4th of July.

“Discovered” in 1765 in the British Colony of Georgia, USA, by an American (William Bartram) in the pay of the British (Dr John Fothergill), the Franklin tree was – at the time – enjoying a quiet and uneventful life, which included routinely producing fragrant white flowers with the beauty of Camellia and the scent of Honeysuckle. The Franklinia had no name – except perhaps an Indian title lost through the  nineteenth century haze. It was a delicate creature, not keen on travel and fussy where it put down roots.

Alas, the days of liberty were passing in the West…

By 1773, when Bostonians were brewing tea in their harbour, it was being hunted across the American South.

By 1777, as British and Americans battled across the North East, its seeds had been collected.

By 1781 it had been bred in captivity, while the US articles of “Confederation and Perpetual Union” were being ratified.

By 1785 it had been catalogued in the Arbustrum Americanum. The newly independent Americans were busy signing the Treaty of Hopewell with the Cherokee, which laid out a Western boundary for white settlement…

And by 1803, when Jefferson successfully purchased “Louisiana” (actually 828,000 square miles stretching all the way to Canada) for 3 cents an acre, less than 40 years after the Franklin tree first drew attention, it had ceased to exist in the wild.

Those twin collosi of nineteenth century progress – industry and organisation – were stirring. In the Southern US their agents, cotton and specimen collectors, were laboring towards a brave new world.

“saved from extinction”

Today, every franklinia tree in existence is a direct descendent from seeds cultivated by William Bartram and his father, John.

A census in 1998 identified 2,000 specimens in  38 US states and in 8 other countries. Bartram’s Garden, in Philadelphia -  is one such detention centre.