Reduced-Impact Forest Management: A Pragmatic Solution for Conservation in the Tropics

Chris Martin

2018 MBA & Master of Forestry Candidate

The class and instructors at IFT’s training facility, the Roberto Bauch Center for ForestWith partial support from the Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies, I had the incredible experience of participating in a week-long forest management course in the northeastern Brazilian Amazon. The intensive field course is offered by the Tropical Forest Institute (IFT -  Instituto Floresta Tropical), whose reduced-impact forest management system is widely held to be Brazil’s gold standard. IFT trains participants in all stages of its system, with an emphasis on practical, on-site experience. 

Hands-on chainsaw Our first day was focused on contrasting exploitative versus sustainable regimes for forest management. After a classroom overview, we took to the field to see the real-world results. “Conventional Harvesting” (CH) is primarily distinguished by the complete absence of planning, which results in the inefficient movement of heavy vehicles through the forest. It is predatory in nature, removing 100% of harvestable individuals of valuable commercial species (such as Mahogany or Cedar), without consideration for the future health of the forest. Often illegal, CH results in heavy and unnecessary damage to forest structure, excessive waste of wood, and high risk to workers.

Visit to a dense forest stand that was harvested followed by “enrichment plantings” twenty yearsOn the other hand, “Reduced-Impact Forest Management” (RIFM) involves monitoring forest growth over time, meticulous planning and highly controlled execution of forest management operations. It is conservative in nature, seeking to mimic natural forest disturbance and succession dynamics to preserve forest health indefinitely. RIFM limits the number of individuals felled per species and removes less wood than the forest will grow back before the next harvest. It reduces damage to forest structure and increases worker safety, while managing the forest for multiple uses beyond timber production (e.g. harvesting non-timber forest products such as Brazil nuts). RIFM is more profitable than CH, because it lowers costs primarily due to more efficient use of heavy vehicles and less wood waste.

A ~600-year-old Red Angelim tree. Individuals of this size are not harvested in RIFM.Over the course of the rest of the week, we took a deep dive into all the stages of RIFM. We combed through the different phases of planning and carried out a forest inventory, analyzed inventory data to select individuals for harvest, and designed roads for a hypothetical harvest. We experienced the primary phases of timber management operations: infrastructure development; chainsaw-based harvesting; skidders clearing trails in the forest to drag out felled logs; and post-harvest “enrichment plantings.” 

IFT’s motto is, “managing the forest is conserving it forever.” Forests of the Brazilian Amazon are at risk from a suite of exploitative economic activities including cattle ranching, agriculture, predatory logging (discussed above), mining operations, and massive infrastructure development. RIFM bolsters the forest against illegal activity and increases its level of economic productivity so that it can compete with unsustainable land uses, while providing jobs and income for local communities.

RIFM is by no means a perfect solution, or a silver bullet to solve the crisis of rampant deforestation in the Amazon basin. There is a need for continued research to improve the scientific understanding of Amazonian forest growth dynamics and RIFM as well as difficulty in maintaining species composition through harvest cycles. These are not insurmountable obstacles.