By Thais Linhares-Juvenal, Senior Forestry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Before COVID-19 hit, increasing the production and use of sustainable wood was already a major challenge.
Substitute materials, such as plastic, concrete and metal can be – at least on the face of it – cheaper. Consumers still hold a perception of wood production as a driver of environmental damage and inequity. And unfortunately, in some cases, they can be right: unsustainable practices, from production to consumption, may be rife.
But actions towards legality and sustainability are prospering, supporting livelihoods across the world and providing a pathway out of extreme poverty to many forest dependent communities.
Wood products from sustainably managed forests, have huge potential to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through their renewability, circularity and cascading properties, sustainable wood products are key to advance the bioeconomy. From employment and economic growth to accessible energy and low carbon fuel, sustainable wood has a vital role to play.
As the COVID-19 has dealt another hard blow to the sector, it has also highlighted opportunities for wood value chains.
The Sustainable Wood for a Sustainable World initiative, formed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and partners, conducted a survey of almost 250 people working across wood value chains worldwide.
Alongside inevitable reports of the devastating effects of halts to trade and production, many of the respondents raised concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic significantly decreasing the financial resources available to implement sustainable forest management.
Many noted that COVID-19 has brought risks to forest governance – crucial for investments – with issues around monitoring and enforcement, illegality and tenure rights severely aggravated by the pandemic.
Countries have their work cut out for them if they want to maintain progress made to curb the presence of illegal wood in the markets, encourage investment in sustainable wood and ensure small and medium producers are supported to engage in sustainable trade.
Yet there was some good news.
COVID-19 may have improved health standards in the sector, as the private sector increased monitoring and compliance with health and safety guidelines in the face of the pandemic.
Respondents also noted that the sector was adopting digital technologies as part of its recovery strategies. And wood businesses are concentrating on adopting industrial certification, inclusion of workers in social protection and decent employment schemes, health care facilities, increased resource efficiency and labour-saving innovation in their recovery phase.
The wood sector may emerge from the crisis with higher social and operational standards and social measures than before.
What is clear is that the sustainable wood sector must be part of the global strategy to build back better if we are to build on emerging opportunities to reduce poverty and reverse risks to sustainable forestry.
Countries need to prioritize providing financial support to small and medium forest enterprises, which require cash transfers and subsidies to stay afloat.
Forestry businesses need to advance the implementation of sustainable practices, certification schemes and, as far as possible, invest in innovation and digitization. They can also work to integrate smallholders, communities and small and medium forest enterprises in more coordinated sustainable supply chains, including horizontal and vertical integration.
And as consumers in the global community, we need to be aware of the availability of sustainable wood products and commit to responsible consumption, particularly at a time when the world is focused on promoting a circular economy and climate change mitigation in the post-COVID-19 environment.