Avoiding destruction in your construction

 This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

In today’s ever-globalising world, it is hard for the discerning consumer to know where the wood they buy comes from. How do we get reliable information the wood’s origins, particularly when production is increasingly less localised and further away from the point of sale?

It is not easy, but it is possible.

The current laws for both new and reclaimed wood are, quite frankly, not that great and wide open to loopholes, as a recent trip to Kalimantan showed me. Exploiting a 2008 regulation from the Ministry of Forestry on inter-island trading of Ulin (Kalimantan Ironwood), I met with traders who were busy setting up deals with communities to replace their 15 year-old Ulin roads and bridges with new Ulin, only to sell the old stuff to the Bali reclaimed wood market! The old wood was pulled up as the new stuff was being simultaneously laid down. As one trader said, ‘We can’t send it out of Kalimantan, but we can replace the old wood with new and send that out instead!’

Much of this imported reclaimed wood ends up in the yards of reclaimed wood wholesalers in Denpasar, who supply raw material to many projects and retailers on Bali.

What concerns me is the possibility that the demand for reclaimed wood in Bali and elsewhere is actually fueling greater destruction of the forests, instead of the reverse. We got into the reclaimed wood trade because we saw it as a way to re-use an old and valuable material, thus reducing demand on the need for new wood. The average punter we meet generally buys recycled timber in an effort to help the planet.

The government was obviously concerned to when in mid 2007 in an effort to ward off the extinction of Ulin, it froze all harvesting and trade of the species and instigated an island-wide inventory of remaining stands in natural forest. The moratorium on the harvesting and trade of Ulin lasted until mid-2008, when it was replaced by a new law that limited export of Ulin only to a handful of Kalimantan-based timber companies who had existing stocks of Ulin in their forest concessions.

Current regulations require that Ulin traders obtain an endorsement from the BRIK (Forest Industry Revitalisation Agency) and a permit (PROKALINDO) to export Ulin out of Kalimantan. Only a handful of companies currently hold this permit. This has made it very difficult for new Ulin traders to find export markets for their wood.

Reclaimed wood exports require all sorts of permit processes of their own, including site inspection by the forestry department, police and forestry permits and so on. But generally speaking, it is relatively simple for the trained eye to differentiate new wood from recycled.

The big issue is of course sustainability. It was unsustainable and rampant exploitation that led the government to implement a law to restrict Ulin trading in the first place. Ulin has a 50 year in ground rating, which means we can expect a heartwood post to last 50 years, or more if it above ground. Growing at around half a centimetre a year, a 5 x 20 board would be cut from a tree that is at least 40 years old. Roughly speaking, a sustainable cutting cycle for Ulin would need to be at least 50 years. We are all for wood being used by local communities for appropriate applications. But what will this community do when in another 15 years when the roads need replacing again and there is no wood left?

So here are the three things you need to make sure your wood is legitimate reclaimed wood:

  1. Ensure your supplier can provide evidence of the original structure the wood came from and its location (photographs or documentation)
  2. Ensure that the original structure was not replaced with new wood when it was demolished
  3. Only buy from trusted suppliers that can comprehensively and satisfactorily respond to your queries