René Reyes has created a certification system for locally produced firewood that meets high conservation and quality standards. His certification process reduces degradation of native forests, improves the livelihoods of rural producers, reduces air pollution, and promotes fair trade.
La nuova idea
René has created a new model of sustainable firewood harvesting to replace the environmentally harmful forestry practices in Chile. René protects Chile’s temperate rainforests and the broader environment while promoting fair trade and ensuring producers in his system receive a larger percentage of profits. René has introduced certification, a process usually associated with export goods, for locally produced firewood that meets high conservation and quality standards. The standards are agreed upon by all in the wood harvesting chain—from tree cutters to packagers to salespeople— and enforced by a local board. Higher prices and greater prestige are an incentive for producers and vendors to join René’s regulated marketplace. René has provided a legal framework for the highly informal logging market and created real added value (in commanding a premium price) in order to improve the livelihoods of poor producers. His national information campaign has helped consumers begin to recognize the benefits of regulation, both for quality of the product and the long-term sustainability of this inexpensive energy source. This campaign has altered consumer attitudes by making it clear that both Chilean people and Chile’s native forests benefit from respecting the law. At a time when energy-starved Chile is hunting to diversify its energy sources, René offers an innovative solution to conserve a renewable energy source that is cheaper and more reliable than imported oil, gas or hydroelectricity, and still protects the country’s environment.
Chile has been seeking out new renewable fuels since an energy crisis in 2004, when Argentina began restricting crucial exports of gas. Soaring oil prices amplified the problem. Already the third largest national energy source in the country, firewood is used more than twice the national average in the south of Chile, where the second-biggest temperate rainforest in the world is located, the Valvidian. In this region, 95 percent of urban and rural homes use firewood for energy, making it an irreplaceable source of fuel for some 1.4 million people.This dependence has given firewood a key role in the local economy. More than 90 percent of all timber extracted from native forests ends up as firewood, and in mountain areas, its sale typically makes up 30 percent of a family’s income. But only 5 percent of annual forestry activities are sustainable, translating into a loss of valuable biodiversity and damage to water systems, soils and climate. Consumers act indiscriminately by burning green, or unseasoned, wood, causing major air pollution in urban areas. In southern Chile’s cities, 70 percent of contaminating particles in the air come from burning green wood, which causes severe health problems in the surrounding population. Furthermore, green wood is less efficient as it gives off less heat and thus requires more firewood to be burned.Consumers and producers currently have little incentive to change. High levels of poverty in isolated rural areas and low market prices lead directly to overexploitation of the native forests. The concept of sustainable forestry management is unknown among producers. Depleted resources will make forestry more precarious in the future, thus consigning more people to poverty, while unsustainable exploitation opens the native forests to the risk of extinction. The market itself is unregulated and distorted; there is no awareness of fair trade values, intermediaries earn far more than producers, and tax evasion is high. Meanwhile, consumers are interested only in buying firewood as cheaply as possible, with no concern for its origin or quality, or for the sustainability of the forests it comes from. They have always had easy access to firewood and give little thought to future supplies. Although there are official bodies charged with forestry protection and sustainable agriculture, they lack a coordinated approach and their policies are incomplete or contradictory. No information is available to educate consumers or train workers for sustainable forestry management.
René realized that only an integrated approach, targeting the entire chain of firewood supply and sale, involving all participants, would succeed in changing attitudes and practices. Since one cannot prevent native forests being cut down for firewood, the project’s goal is for the use of resources to be both profitable and managed in the most efficient, environmentally friendly way.
René created a local certification board which, using clear institutional guidelines, would certify high-quality sustainable firewood. Higher prices and greater prestige are an incentive both for producers and vendors to join a regulated marketplace, instead of the informal open market which has high levels of tax evasion and overpriced goods. René established the local certification board in the town of Valdivia, formed by 10 public bodies, citizen organizations and private institutions. The board approves firewood harvested in a sustainable manner to be sold by certified vendors.
René realized that only an integrated approach, targeting the entire chain of firewood supply and sale, involving all participants, would succeed in changing attitudes and practices. Since one cannot prevent native forests being cut down for firewood, the project’s goal is for the use of resources to be both profitable and managed in the most efficient, environmentally friendly way. René created a local certification board which, using clear institutional guidelines, would certify high-quality sustainable firewood. Higher prices and greater prestige are an incentive both for producers and vendors to join a regulated marketplace, instead of the informal open market which has high levels of tax evasion and overpriced goods. René established the local certification board in the town of Valdivia, formed by 10 public bodies, citizen organizations and private institutions. The board approves firewood harvested in a sustainable manner to be sold by certified vendors. Because the project involves a large adjustment in public attitude, René spent two years preparing to launch a pilot certification scheme in Valdivia in November 2005. He surveyed residents to determine current practices and opinions and then launched an information campaign stressing the values of fair trade and responsible consumption, supported by pamphlets, messages aired on radio and television, school information campaigns, and talks and workshops conducted by trained volunteers. The campaigns have already reached 5,000 school children and 91,000 residents. René is targeting large firewood consumers, such as hotels, factories, and hospitals, to seek commitments that they will use only certified wood. Even before the certification was officially launched, some large consumers began including certification criteria for their supplies.It is not just socially aware consumers who are being targeted. In the survey, mainstream consumers complained that they have problems with storage because traditionally, firewood is only purchased once per year. By offering better customer service, such as the ability to order firewood by telephone each month, consumers are satisfied and certified firewood vendors gain a true competitive advantage.René offers training to firewood vendors and a technical assistance program to those interested in becoming certified. To date, two vendors have been certified and six are in the process. Half the firewood vendors in Valdivia have taken part in training courses. He also actively works with a group of 100 firewood producers, providing technical assistance in forestry management and help with sales. The certification system has already boosted their income by up to 80 percent. In addition, René is promoting a firewood cooperative to manage sales of wood from small and medium-sized producers. He has also held information meetings with intermediaries to shorten the supply chain and bring them into the formal sector.René designed his project locally but with a strategy to spread it nationwide. Even before launching the certification seal in Valdivia, he had signed an agreement with the government’s national environmental and forestry agencies, as well as other institutions, to investigate spreading the system nationwide. Certification boards have been set up in three other towns in southern Chile—Temuco, Chillan and Coyhaique—that expect to begin firewood certification next year, with plans to spread to another five towns. René advocated for certification boards to remain local in order to keep them close to their communities, but he serves on the board of the recently created National Firewood Certification Council, which brings together public and private institutions to oversee and unify the process nationwide.Similar forestry and environmental problems occur in Peru and Paraguay, and René established contacts in those countries to discuss spreading his strategy to places where the model may be relevant. Through his leadership of the Native Forest Forestry Engineers’ Group and his certification program, René is regarded as an expert in his field with close connections to the national government. He succeeded in lobbying the inclusion of sustainable forestry management in the government program of President Bachelet. So far, 10,000 square meters of firewood has been certified and René created a rotating fund to buy firewood from local producers, dry it and sell it, to ensure the project is financially sustainable. He is working with a government agency to extend credit lines to producers to help them install better drying facilities.Temperate rainforests exist in North America, New Zealand, southern Australia and South Africa, and with an increasing awareness of the need for renewable energy as fossil fuels decline worldwide, René’s model could be applied to other countries. The beauty of his approach is that it is not confined to firewood, but could be implemented for the sustained, environmentally friendly management of other natural resources.
René has always been a passionate leader with a gift for entrepreneurial solutions. He funded his final two years of university through a company he and two friends established that sold native trees in supermarkets in Santiago. An effective advocate for forestry issues, he has also cultivated close institutional links in order to change national forestry policy. While at university, he represented the Institute of Forestry Science on the National Forestry Corporation, and after his studies, he worked for that agency. His involvement with the World Wildlife Fund project succeeded in including the concerns of civil society in a parliamentary debate on a new national forestry law. He was elected president of the Native Forest Forestry Engineers’ Group in 2001, defeating his former professors for the post, after previously serving as its secretary. With his drive and vision, he overhauled the organization, more than tripling membership and making it the authoritative voice on native forest management in Chile. He also serves on the board of the Citizens’ Network for Native Forests, an alliance between companies, forest owners, academics and NGOs to promote sustainable forestry.