It’s not easy being green – an exploration of the purported sustainability of ipé

Politics is ever-looming, wherever you turn in the design world. Kermit the Frog was right when he famously sang that “It’s not easy being green”. In fact, it’s damn tricky! Being a conscientious consumer (and materials specifier) is balancing on an endless scale, constantly weighing the pros and the cons of just about everything. A couple of recent garden projects have brought on a need to investigate good alternatives for decking materials. For years now, a tropical marvel named Ipé (pronounced “ee-pay”) has been the darling wood of shelter mags everywhere. It goes by many other names too; Ironwood, Pau Lope, Brazilian walnut, Lapacho etc…. Sure, it looks fantastic, but I can’t help regard it with a healthy dose of suspicion. Any time someone says “tropical hardwood”, red flags automatically appear in my head, and my brain starts firing off questions – especially when the wood in question is touted as sustainable. How is it possible that such a popular hardwood harvested from tropical Brazilian rain forests could possibly be considered sustainable? How does it grow? How many years until harvest? Are systems in place to monitor the harvesting? What kind of damage does the infrastructure needed to transport the timber (roads, etc.) do? And of course, the eternal query of a wannabe conscientious designer; What is its total, embodied energy once it reaches its final destination? As I began my research, layer upon layer of complexities got added to the mix. But – let’s start with all the obvious reasons people love it:

— It is one of the hardest of the trade woods. Its Janka rating is 3684 lbf (pound-force). This means it is 270% harder than white oak, and a whopping 368% harder than teak. Because of this hardness, planks half the thickness of any other wood or composite offer enough strength. (In other words, you can use a 1” x 6” instead of a 2” x 6 “). When used for furniture, this super-strength quality makes for beautiful, slender, visually lightweight pieces – the Shaker artisans would have loved it! However, don’t let the visuals fool you – ipé’s remarkable density also makes it exceptionally heavy – the wood even sinks in water!

— It doesn’t warp, it does not require air or kiln drying, it stands up to the elements beautifully, and has a life expectancy of at least half a century. Compare that to your average Redwood decking which, in addition to annual maintenance needs replaced – on average – every 15 years. This, in the long run, renders our domestic Redwood quite more expensive to the consumer.

— Ipé has an A1 fire rating. This rating is reserved for components that escape unaffected in a fire. In other words, not exactly the best choice for a camp fire…

— Other than resisting decay – even in wet conditions – it also holds up remarkably well against insect infestations. It holds up pretty well against machine tools, too. It will eat up carbon-steel blades, so you need carbide bits and blades to successfully shape it. According to American Woodworker “Edges are best smoothed with a file – like brass” and a drum sander will burnish the surface “just like metal”.

— Its tight grain, smooth, knot-free appearance, and its even dark color – ranging from olive green to chocolate brown – gives it a very seductive look, prized by designers and aesthetes everywhere. Seriously – what’s not to love?

A 2007 discussion on the subject on the Garden Web, yielded a lot of very useful information, much of it courtesy of a Brazilian native who lives and works in the Amazonian timber industry. Among many others (you will see below, as I rely heavily on his insights), he made the very fair point that the forest is one of Brazil’s most valuable resources, and that buying tropical woods helps the Brazilian economy. Of course he’s right. Who am I – or anyone else – to question that? Amazonians are as entitled to eeking out a living, just as any other country in the global economy is.

Ipé generally refers to all tree species of the Tabebuia genus. In itself it is not endangered, and reputable U. S. providers source only sustainably harvested timber. But, only some of the wood sold in the US is FSC certified. (The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-partisan, non-profit, worldwide organization, dedicated to promoting eco-friendly forestry and sustainable forestry practices.) The reason only “some” of the Ipé sold has passed the scrutinizing eye of the FSC and its stringent chain of custody procedures, is simple – the popular demand heavily outweighs the supply. Illegal logging is plentiful, and the timber supplements that which has been legally harvested. According to our Garden Web friend again: “… a lot of the ipé that has been shipped to the US market has come from land converted to ranches and soy bean plantations over the years in the states of Mato Grasso and Para in northern Brazil. And, much of this was done as a result of illegal deforestation and irregular documentation…. It is not that ipe is not sustainable. If harvested under a sustainable management project it is. If it is the result of forest land conversion to alternate uses, such as farm land or pasture land it is not. And, if it is prospected through predatory logging practices it also is not too sustainable.” In a nutshell – this is why ipé – despite its occasional FSC rating and its many other obvious advantages is not (and probably never will be) deemed “sustainable” by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Brazil does indeed have its very own methods in place to control the timber trade; “… a computerized lumber control system called DOF (Documento de Origem Florestal – document of forest origin).” Uncontrolled deforestation is illegal and sustainable forest practices are supposedly monitored via satellite. Permits allow harvesting up to a limit of “20% of usable land area”. Excessive deforestation is wrought with heavy fines – if caught. Theoretically, the systems track the wood’s journey from the harvesting location through its subsequent points of sale, be they local or international. In theory, this is great, but sadly it’s not quite so simple or elegant in practice. Far-reaching federal corruption spanning all levels of the Brazilian government, and a severe lack of resources for the few law enforcement entities that do exist, thwart the well-intended measures. As of 2007, the forest management laws had recently been moved from the federal to the state level. According to our friend the Brazilian on the Garden Web, this is good news. “The new law which allows for forest concessions for lumber production under sustainable forestry practices is a very positive development and will allow for increased productivity of the forest. “ In order to get a permit for deforestation, “a project has to be submitted with geo coordinates, size, etc, and a list of species.” Once approved, a number of other requirements regarding swift reforestation of the deforested areas are imposed to validate the permit.

Part of the problem, according to our friend, is that the US market is not as accepting of a wider range of species as other parts of the world – notably Europe. The more species that are in demand by consumers, the more efficient forest management practices can be. Ipé is not a mono-culture plantation wood like Lyptus – it grows in groups or “veins” strewn throughout the enormous multitude of other species that make up a typical stretch of rainforest. There can be over 300 species of tree growing within a single acre! “… focusing on one specie is not the best use of forest resources….In an area with good concentrations of ipé for example you may only get 1 tree per acre at the most.” Good forest management practices require that you only disturb tracts of land once every 25 years. “If you are looking for only one or few species at a time, the same area may be disturbed more frequently. This has happened in the past and degrades forest as a consequence. There may be up to 20 species of commercial value trees in a project. And uses for them need to be found. The export market only consumes a small variety of these.” He goes on to mention other more commonly available woods that have similar qualities to that of ipé, and often would make acceptable substitutes (tiger wood (muiracatiara) and massaranduba) but that fetch a higher price on the European market, and thus are sold overseas instead. You can find some tiger wood on the American market, but in general, American interest in these products have been lukewarm at best. Not sure why…

A 2007 National Geographic article provided added insight into additional forces that make up the complexity. The first line of the story is an attention grabber if I’ve ever seen one: “In the time it takes to read this article, an area of Brazil’s rain forest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed.” It goes on to tell the tale of poverty, ignorance, greed and corruption, of unarmed civil servants outnumbered by heavily armed timber-poaching gangsters. It’s a tale of murder and deceit, as well as of the highly questionable acquisition methods of powerful, multi-national agro-corporations, as they swoop down on illiterate, uneducated natives, and convince them to hand over their land for mere pennies. It also touches on the damaging impact roads have on the forest. “Except for a handful of federal and state highways—including the east-west Trans-Amazon Highway and the controversial BR-163, the “soy highway,” which splits the heart of the Amazon along 1,100 miles from southern Mato Grosso north to Santarém in Pará—nearly every road in the Amazon is unauthorized. There are more than 105,000 miles of these roads, most made illegally by loggers to reach mahogany and other hardwoods for the lucrative export market…. In Brazil, the events set in motion by logging are almost always more destructive than the logging itself. Once the trees are extracted and the loggers have moved on, the roads serve as conduits for an explosive mix of squatters, speculators, ranchers, farmers, and, invariably, hired gunmen. The land sharks follow the roads deep into previously impenetrable forest, then destroy tracts to make it look as if they own them.” [Wow, 105,000 miles…. that’s A LOT of road – far exceeding 4 trips around the Earth’s equator…] A friend who is a deck builder assures me that the supplier he uses utilizes “ computer generated cut lists that maintain age and species diversity throughout the forest. Every tree is GPS mapped and roadless techniques such as skidsteers and helicopters are used.” A viable alternative to avoid creating more roads, no doubt, but trying to fit it into an environmentally sustainable perspective, I can’t help wondering what helicopter transport does for the eventual tallying up of the embodied energy. When you’re trying to score green points – these things matter greatly!

In all fairness, I think it is important to point out that the great majority of rainforest destruction has very little to do with the demands of the building industry. In fact, only 17% of the tropical timber goes toward construction and furniture production. These pie charts from a study commissioned by Greenpeace, show several interesting and relevant statistics. “It may make more sense to control soy bean production than wood production to reduce impacts on the forest.” As our Brazilian friend implied above; most of the thousands of acres leveled daily are not felled in the name of timber exports, but to prepare land for agricultural use, primarily soy cultivation and cattle ranching. The idea of using former rainforest land for conventional agriculture or pasture is an insane notion as – once the forest is gone – the soil is severely lacking in nutrients and makes a poor candidate for cultivating just about anything. The multi-national agro-businesses are all too happy to employ an abundance of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to make up the difference. As a result, the converted areas, and adjacent waterways have become vast chemical cesspools. But, I digress… we’re talking wood here…

So, what have I learned from this? Would I use ipé? Possibly, in the right situation. But, it would have to be for a project worthy of such a treasure. And, unless it was FSC or DOF certified, I wouldn’t do it. I would reserve the privilege for only the most elegant and damn good-looking end result. In fact, I would feel as if I had squandered something almost eternal if it wasn’t an absolute show-stopper! Kind of along the same lines as if I were to cook a wild-caught fish, it would have to be one of the most delicious and beautifully presented meals it was in my power to produce – a reverent tribute of sorts, that would honor the sacrifice of its life. This article is a helpful tool to help you become a more savvy consumer in regards to supporting sustainable wood production.

I’m also intrigued by the aforementioned muiracatiara and massaranduba, as well as the other 20 or so “commercially valuable” woods that we hardly see here in the U.S. The fact that only 18.5% of the total industrial woods and wood products produced in tropical countries, enter the international trade, indicates that over 80% is consumed domestically – a lot of it is used as fuel. I we, and the rest of the industrial world, were more welcoming to try other wood species, we would help these timber producing countries ease the devastating economic pressures of poverty and population demands. I’m convinced that alleviating poverty, and educating people would cure so many of our societal ills. You’d think that with the rapidly and continuously decreasing cost of alternative fuel technologies like solar, wind and geo-thermal power (which we, obviously, all have an endless endowment of, provided we know how to use it), we’d be able to help these countries reap, and democratize, the benefits of the veritable gold mine growing in their back yard – in a sustainable manner. Burning wood for energy use, and to clear land, seems so incredibly medieval and wasteful. Then again, there is no silver bullet solution to this, so I should probably be careful before making any sweeping, arrogant generalizations. But it would be a good start…

In my research, I came across something interesting which I don’t believe is available in the U.S. – at least not yet. In Europe, Lyptus treated with a water-based preservative, is available for decking. You can read more about it here, but in short, Lyptus is an exceptionally fast-growing plantation-grown, tropical tree. It is harvested in about 15 year’s time, and looks, feels and acts like mahogany. To continue the fish analogy, in terms of sustainability, Lyptus is essentially the tilapia of timber. Compare that to the maturity age of ipé – at the very least 30 years! Forestry laws in Brazil dictate that the diameter of a trunk has to be at least 50 centimeters before legally available for harvesting. If given the opportunity to use Lyptus, I would not hesitate long before I’d go for it – even if it had not been previously vetted by Americans in exterior situations. I’ve used it in interior applications, and it is beautiful, functional and affordable! I imagine, that if it’s good enough for Europe – surely it would fair pretty well here as well.

What about available composites? They are a mixture of polyethylene and wood dust. Doubtlessly, the chemical manufacturing process is far from green, but the redeeming factor of consisting of varying degrees of recycled and post consumer content (in the case of Trex – 100% recycled, 90% post consumer) gives it high rankings in the eyes of the US Green Building Council. According to one ipé proponenent “…it burns like a torch and is 20% more expensive than ipé.” Besides, despite all manufacturer claims to the contrary, it WARPS! I have seen it, and it aint pretty… In fact, its warped and tired appearance was a primary reason a client wanted to replace it!

So, here I am – pretty much back where I started. A little wiser, still battling my indecision, and not much nearer any real conclusion. All I know for sure, is that Kermit the Frog was right: It’s most definitely NOT easy being green!”

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About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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One Response to It’s not easy being green – an exploration of the purported sustainability of ipé

  1. Pingback: Fragrant Questions | The Fragrant Man

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