I recently returned from a six-week, five-country tour of the South American flooring industry. I was delighted by how healthy many of the forests seemed and by the increasing awareness and efforts made by the local industry not just regarding legality, but also sustainability and even towards certification. In decades past, the Amazon seemed to be a forest without end, but now we realize that we do have the risk of losing it, and it is only by recognizing the economic value within the forest, will we be able to save it.

I talked to industry, association and government officials, and all spoke of the increasing pressures made upon the forests by mining operations and by agricultural programs (both for local use and international sales). All agreed that without a healthy, ongoing commercial wood program, the forests would be converted to other usages.

In the past, countries have tried to "save the rainforest" by banning tropical timber. Unfortunately this usually has the opposite effect. Experts agree that the best way to save the forest is to give it value so people treat it as an investment and look to it for the long-term return. The more value the wood has, the more people will protect it and the more they will plant for the future.

During my trip, I visited not just flooring, decking and other wood operations, but several alternative-use industries as well. One-a factory producing Brazil nuts-would not be a surprise, but the second was: a condom factory, utilizing naturally harvested rubberwood latex from commercial forests. During my trip, I also picked up some artisan soaps that included "rainforest oils." All three of these industries were dependent on healthy forests and all were utilizing the resources of forests that were being commercially and sustainably harvested. The logging companies were supporting their programs and they definitely supported the logging operations as well.

Survey data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has shown that forests outside tropical regions are generally increasing in size. FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment shows that during the 1990s the area of forest in non-tropical regions increased by 29 million hectares. That's 80% of the total area of Japan. The reason for the increase is generally attributed to healthy forest products industries (and the jobs they create). The more profitable the forests are, the more people will work to keep them healthy and increase their number. This has been proven by the United States forest industry. The flooring industry can help save the world's forests by assisting developing nations in creating strong, legal and sustainable forest industries.

Next week, a look at using "LKS" as a way to promote sustainable forest industries. (If you don't know what LKS is, tune in next week.)

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")