Reduced-Impact Forest Management: A Pragmatic Solution for Conservation in the Tropics

Reduced-Impact Forest Management: A Pragmatic Solution for Conservation in the Tropics

In November of 2017, I had the incredible experience of participating in a week-long renowned forest management course in the northeastern Brazilian Amazon. The intensive field course is offered by the Tropical Forest Institute (IFT – Instituto Floresta Tropical), whose reduced-impact forest management system is widely held to be Brazil’s gold standard. IFT trains participants in all stages of its system, with an emphasis on practical, on-site experience. Over the course of the week I developed a comprehensive understanding of tropical forest management, and was challenged to face a conflict that arose within me regarding the use of pristine forests for timber production in the name of conservation.

On November 18, I arrived in Belém, the capital of the state of Pará, where I met the 25 forestry students from the University of São Paulo who would become my classmates for the week. A hot and dusty eight-hour bus ride took us to IFT’s training facility, consisting of a few small buildings and a dirt soccer field in the middle of a 500,000-acre privately-owned forest sustainably managed for timber.


The class visits a dense forest stand that was harvested followed by “enrichment plantings” 20 years earlier.

Our first day was focused on contrasting exploitative versus sustainable regimes for forest management. After a classroom overview, we took to the field to see the real-world results. “Conventional Harvesting” (CH) is primarily distinguished by the complete absence of planning, which results in the inefficient movement of heavy vehicles through the forest. It is predatory in nature, removing 100% of harvestable individuals of valuable commercial species (such as Mahogany or Cedar), without consideration for the future health of the forest. Often illegal, CH results in heavy and unnecessary damage to forest structure, excessive waste of wood, and high risk to workers.

On the other hand, “Reduced-Impact Forest Management” (RIFM) involves monitoring forest growth over time, meticulous planning and highly controlled execution of forest management operations. It is conservative in nature, seeking to mimic natural forest disturbance and succession dynamics to preserve forest health indefinitely. RIFM limits the number of individuals felled per species and removes less wood than the forest will grow back before the next harvest. It reduces damage to forest structure and increases worker safety, while managing the forest for multiple uses beyond timber production (e.g. harvesting non-timber forest products such as Brazil nuts). And finally, the icing on the cake: RIFM is more profitable than CH, because it lowers costs primarily due to more efficient use of heavy vehicles and less wood waste.


The initial “directional cut” of the felling of a Red Angelim. This cut allows the chainsaw operator to fell the tree in a specific direction to reduce damage to the forest structure.

Over the course of the rest of the week, we took a deep dive into all the stages of RIFM. We combed through the different phases of planning and carried out a forest inventory, analyzed inventory data to select individuals for harvest, and designed roads for a hypothetical harvest. We experienced the primary phases of timber management operations: infrastructure development; chainsaw-based harvesting; skidders clearing trails in the forest to drag out felled logs; and post-harvest “enrichment plantings.” Indeed, the course fulfilled its promise of delivering a comprehensive, in-depth seminar of RIFM grounded in field experience.

As an environmental conservationist and lover of nature, I experienced a range of emotions throughout the week. For instance, it was not easy to watch the bulldozing of primary forest to make way for roads, or feel the ground shake with the felling of a huge and majestic Red Angelim. I felt an internal conflict surging up within myself. I felt emotionally attached to the notion that primary forests should be left fully preserved and untouched by man. But this clashed with my rational understanding of how RIFM increases the value of standing forest, furthering conservation efforts.

IFT’s motto is, “managing the forest is conserving it forever.” Forests of the Brazilian Amazon are at risk from a suite of exploitative economic activities including cattle ranching, agriculture, predatory logging (discussed above), mining operations, and massive infrastructure development. RIFM bolsters the forest against illegal activity and increases its level of economic productivity so that it can compete with unsustainable land uses, while providing jobs and income for local communities.


Witnessing a bulldozer plow a road into pristine, primary forest.

RIFM is by no means a perfect solution, or a silver bullet to solve the crisis of rampant deforestation in the Amazon basin. There is a need for continued research to improve the scientific understanding of Amazonian forest growth dynamics and RIFM as well as difficulty in maintaining species composition through harvest cycles. These are not insurmountable obstacles.

I am confident that I will never enjoy the sight of heavy machinery operating in primary forests, but the real world is often messier than romantic visions we may hold in our minds. The real world demands compromise, and effective solutions may not be as pretty as we would like them to be. I am now a firm advocate of RIFM in the tropics, because it represents a pragmatic solution to increase the value of standing forest while preserving its ecological function. I will never let go of my love for pristine old-growth forests, and believe that large areas within the Amazon basin should indeed remain 100-percent preserved. At the same time, I recognize the huge role that RIFM can play in a mosaic of different land uses in landscape-level conservation efforts.

Note: facts stated above are attributable to Instituto Floresta Tropical. 

Chris Martin is a third-year joint degree candidate interested in natural resource management, timberland investments, conservation finance and developing markets. While at Yale, he has held positions with the Yale School Forests, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Klabin S.A. (Brazil’s largest pulp & paper producer). Prior to coming to Yale, Chris worked as program associate of the Andes-Amazon Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He graduated summa cum laude in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2012. Chris is from Connecticut, but has spent over a decade living in South America, Europe and Asia. Chris is fluent in Portuguese and proficient in Spanish. He is an avid trail-runner, amateur piano-accordionist and mediocre salsa dancer.