The present harvesting of purpleheart is like removing all the currants from a black cake

Dear Editor,

The Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment has published a few extra data on mis-management of purpleheart timber in the article ‘Purpleheart not being unsustainably managed – Persaud’ (Stabroek News, April 16, 2012).  These, and other data sent to me by SN readers, reinforce the sad story of continued over-exploitation of this commercially preferred, furniture and flooring quality timber; see the revised table at the end of this letter.  Before logging, purpleheart comprises 0.5-1.0 per cent by volume in the standing natural forest, but concentrated in clumps or ‘reefs’ with the forest in between reefs containing no or very few purpleheart trees.

It is the legal mandate of the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) to manage the forest “on a sustainable basis“ (Article 4 of the Guyana Forestry Commission Act, revised 2007), not just some bits of the forest.  And the GFC Code of Practice for Timber Harvesting (revised 2002, page 8) says that “sustained yields can only be ensured if a minimum stocking is retained after logging for each individual desirable species“; ‘individual’ is underlined for emphasis in the GFC Code.  It follows that logging of purpleheart should not on average exceed that 0.5-1.0 per cent of the totals, if the forest is to be sustained.

The inappropriate figures provided by Minister Persaud can be interpreted by analogy with black cake.  The forests of Guyana have some 1,000 tree species of which one is purpleheart.  From previous preliminary research, the GFC believes that a sustainable yield of all species combined should not exceed 20 m3/ha in any one period of 60 years, because the replacement growth over those 60 years is about 0.33 m3/ha/year (60 x 0.33 = 20).  Imagine that the forest is your black cake, with the plums, cherries, nuts, candied peel, raisins, currants and sultanas being the different species of trees, well mixed.

Minister Persaud says that we are not eating the whole cake (1,632,000 m3 possible in 2010), we are eating only a one-third slice (574,000 production in 2010).  But, according to Minister Persaud, we are not taking an ordinary slice of the black cake.  Instead, we are piling our plate by picking out the currants and the cherries from the rest of the cake to make our slice richer in 2010; 51,000 m3 of purpleheart, 9 per cent of the total instead of the 0.5-1.0 per cent occurring in the natural forest).  That, according to Minister Persaud, is sustainable management.  So bad luck for the Guyanese who are left with the rest of the cake with all the currants and cherries having been eaten already by Minister Persaud.

However confused the Minister is, it is clear that the GFC knows what should be done to prevent this selective overharvesting of currants / purpleheart (and other preferred timbers).  Indeed, following the endorsement of the second national forest policy in 1948, the then Forest Department proposed that –

(a) loggers were required to submit logging programmes to work their leases in a sequence of contiguous blocks;

(b) all merchantable timber should be worked out from one block before logging extended into the next;

(c) trees (seed bearers) were to be retained for silvicultural purposes [that is, to provide seed for the next generation of timber trees];

(d) worked out blocks were to be surrendered to the Forest Department for regeneration or improvement work to be undertaken (Ivan Welch’s A Short History of the Guyana Forest Department 1925-1975, page 50).

Revised table of purpleheart volume as percentage of total log +chainsawn production

(contrast with the natural occurrence of purpleheart in the forest of only 0.5-1.0 per cent by volume on average)


As Ivan Welch went on to describe, this conventional forestry practice was not implemented in the 1950s although it is standard practice in much of South and South-East Asia and has been for decades.  However, the GFC has been promoting this practice in some of the long-term Timber Sales Agreements since 2008-9 but progress is not assessable because the GFC is now two decades behind in producing for the National Assembly the legally-required annual reports and audited accounts.

Note that Minister Persaud has not supplied data for 2007 or 2008, only for 2009-2011, and that the Minister’s figures do not match those of the GFC in the Forest Sector Information Reports for 2009-2011.  And if present logging is bad for purpleheart it is worse for some other timbers, as I expect to publish later this year.

Yours faithfully,
J R Palmer

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