Out of the woods
India has emerged as one of the biggest consumers of tropical timber in the world, with sizeable imports from Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, New Zealand, and lately from Africa and Latin America. The resurgent economy, expanding middle class and burgeoning infrastructure, spurred by lucrative housing schemes, commercial constructions and rapid urbanisation has upped the demand dynamically. This is offset, however, by the stagnant supply of timber locally. This supply is constrained by the fuelwood consumption, curbs on timber harvesting and natural degradation of forests.
Some critical facts emerged during our recent research for a review of the timber market, by the International Tropical Timber Organization (itto). India has 16 per cent of the world's population, but only one per cent of the world's forests, with barely one tenth of the average global productivity per hectare. Among the itto's producer countries, India has the lowest per capita forest area. Over one-third of existing forests have sparse tree cover. Trees outside the forest supplement forest produce. These barely cover 2.5 per cent of the land area, but are turning into an important resource, especially for the panel, pulp and paper industries.
As a result, annual industrial roundwood imports have trebled in the last five years to over 2 million cubic metres. By 2012, they may hit 10 million cubic metres. Medium- to long-term prospects for tropical timber imports by India are enormous. Trends indicate industrial roundwood consumption of over 70 million cubic metres, with a gap of over 14 million cubic metres between potential demand and domestic supply.
However, the Indian timber market remains chaotic, leading to a discernible shift towards substitutes like plastics, aluminium and steel (around 25 per cent of wood volumes) in construction and furniture. Not good news for the environment or the economy, as these substitutes from non-renewable resources are pernicious polluters and high-energy consumers.
This is despite India having one of the oldest world class forest services and centres of excellence in marketing, statistics and economics, many of which participated in the itto Review. Yet the timber market
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