Costa Rica is usually praised for its commitment to environmental protection and conservation. For instance, the Central American country is running on 99 percent renewable energy and it’s one of the top 20 countries worldwide with the most biodiversity (Costa Rica covers only 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface, but it’s home to 4 to 5 percent of the total species estimated worldwide, particularly insects). So how can Costa Rica allow illegal logging to threaten the rare cocobolo tree, also known as tropical or black rosewood, and other rare trees in its national parks?
The Price of Luxury
As reported in The Tico Times, loggers are now venturing into protected areas for the precious wood “as the last untapped source of valuable lumber for export.” The country’s understaffed national park rangers (one park ranger for every 110,000 hectares) can’t compete with the international demand for cocobolo.
The cocobolo tree is indigenous to Central America and Mexico, but that’s not stopping countries like China and India from wanting a piece. The Wood Database explains the wood’s appeal; it comes in many colors ranging from yellow to brown with “streaks of black or purple. ” It’s prized for its durability, natural oils and ability to fight off insects. The most common uses for the cocobolo include: “Fine furniture, musical instruments, turnings, and other small specialty objects.” The tree’s limited supply makes it quite expensive.
But all of this luxury comes at a cost. The IUCN Red List classifies the tree as vulnerable, or one classification short of endangered. Intensive timber exploitation, particularly in Costa Rica, is wiping the trees out. And according to the IUCN Red List, “the habitat has been exploited for 400 years and continuing reductions are caused through cattle ranching and burning.”
Why Costa Rica’s Illegal Logging Needs to End Now
One person who believes that organized crime is behind the tree trafficking is Raúl Acevedo, a park ranger with the Guanacaste Conservation Area (ACG). Acevedo justifies his position to the The Tico Times by describing the process:
It usually starts with a middleman who seeks out farms with commercial-grade cocobolo. Then they approach the farmer and offer him a few hundred dollars to cut his trees — wood that can be “worth ten times as much in Asia.”
Once the trees are cut down, Acevedo described behaviors that sounded more like drug trafficking than logging. He said that officers have found trunks of cocobolo, typically cut down to just the reddish hearts, hidden under scrap metal, hay, oranges and among other lumber. Typically, an advance car will drive ahead of the truck carrying the cocobolo to alert the driver if there is a police checkpoint ahead.
Ironically, the Costa Rican government is partly to blame for this tree trafficking. Sometimes the government provides permits to harvest the tree. Illegal loggers will just keep cutting down the trees until they’re asked for a permit (remember: there’s one park ranger for every 110,000 hectares). Loggers can also get their hands on “legal” cocobolo by buying seized wood from the Prosecutor’s Office. I don’t see how auctioning the vulnerable wood back to the people who cut it in the first place is going to ever curb the illegal practice.
A curb in the demand for cocobolo just might do the trick. Acevedo describes how “after boom years in 2013 and 2014 for cocobolo, 2015 was relatively quiet.” But the park ranger warns that even if the demand for cocobolo drops, the demand for another exotic wood, probably in Costa Rica’s national parks, will shortly take its place. Even though we depend on trees for so much, this type of reality contributes to the global decline of trees where “the number of trees has fallen by about 46 percent since the start of human civilization and each year there is a gross loss of 15 billion trees and a net loss of 10 billion.” Acevedo keeps fighting for trees because he knows that they’re so much more than just trees; Costa Rica’s extreme 2015 drought taught him that leaving trees and forests along streams and rivers is critical in protecting water sources.
Sign and share this petition urging Costa Rica to crack down on the country’s illegal logging. Today, it’s Costa Rica’s cocobolo — tomorrow, it’s national parks littered with logs and stumps because all of the trees have been cut down.
Photo Credit: Graeme Churchard