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Technical assistance in the development of tropical forests

By A. AUBRÉVILLE, Inspector-General of Waters and Forests Ministry of Overseas France, Paris

The problems posed by the utilization and conservation of tropical forests are already well known, but the territories where they must be confronted are so vast and the forests themselves and the local conditions so varied that we are still a long way from finding adequate solutions. The experience accumulated in many parts of the world has at least shown what ought to be done, but a prodigious amount of time and effort will be needed before practice can catch up with theory on the scale that is required.

Tropical forestry presents much the same aspects in all countries that are sparsely populated and little developed. The difficulties may be broadly summarized as follows:

1. The forests of the tropics are extensive and on the whole little exploited. In fact, there are still great areas which are quite untouched. But where exploitation has been carried out, the output per unit of area is meager. The number of species at present marketable is small, and exports of tropical timbers form a very small proportion of the world timber trade. This disproportion between the available resource and its utilization remains an anomaly in a world so organized every natural resource needs to be put to work.

2. The most valuable timbers often come from those species which are the least abundant in the forest. Their extraction impoverishes the growing stock to the advantage of the less desirable trees left standing, and the first-class species are gradually ousted.

3. The practice of shifting cultivation and the attendant risk of burning and brush fires can easily completely destroy the tropical forest, particularly where it grows on steep slopes or in regions with a long dry season. The natural result of such forest denudation is soil deterioration and depletion of water supplies. But in underdeveloped areas these points are too often ignored or underestimated. Therefore, it is often a basic service to focus attention on the conditions existing in tropical areas in order to bring about full realization of their inherent dangers.

Returning to the problem of the poor utilization of the forest resource, it is fair to say that this is closely bound up with sparse populations. Where populations are more dense, necessity produces the incentive for greater forest exploitation. But as things are today, only the promise of building up an export trade will stimulate utilization in the great untouched forest regions. In my opinion, the principal use of technical assistance in such areas should be, first, to determine the proper conditions for producing an expansion of timber exports, and second, to help in achieving this expansion. Many sparsely populated tropical countries could derive considerable revenue from opening up their forest resources.

In many parts of the world the only method known for moving heavy planks is still back-breaking labor.

The main reason why tropical countries have remained backward in developing their forest resources is that so little is known of the possibilities for exploitation or of the relative value of the commodities which the forest can produce. Only a portion of the standing timber may be of commercial value as export logs or for conversion by industry, but as long as no one knows what the forest can produce, utilization cannot be developed.

What Technical Assistance Should Do

The first phase in a technical assistance program for tropical forest areas should be to investigate and assess the value of the forest resource. There are three stages to this:

1. An estimation of the standing timber available. The tropical forest comprises many species, in fact far too many, with varying qualities. A choice must be made of species that are likely to prove valuable in the light of the quality of wood, technological properties, relative abundance, and distribution. For each species which is considered worth exploiting, studies must be made of the timber, (physical and mechanical characteristics, uses, ease of working) and of the tree (average size, cubic content, technological characteristics of the logs, defects, grain, heartwood, etc.). Information is also required on the geographical distribution of a species and its relative abundance in the forest. A timber that is excellent but rare is not of much commercial importance unless it is especially suited for veneer.

This means that the first step should be a general inventory of the forest, beginning with the areas which are most easily accessible for exploitation, and permitting a broad evaluation to be made by region or type of forest of the average amount of exploitable timber available in cubic measure. In the course of this inventory, full investigations should be made of everything that is known locally as to the qualities and uses of the timbers found, and laboratory tests should be arranged for the study and classification of the timbers. A detailed survey of all the forests of a country would not be necessary; it would suffice to define the different forest types, and then by a process of sampling acquire adequate knowledge of the average worth of the forest.

2. Examination of the possibilities for exploiting the forest. This would entail a survey of the physical environment (climate, topography, soils) so as to reveal any special difficulties of extraction, and would begin with a determination of those areas which, because of good extraction routes and other means of access to the forest, can be most easily and immediately worked. Studies would cover (a) the state of existing extraction routes, e.g., the limit of navigable and floating waters throughout the year and in certain seasons, the difficulties of navigation and floating, railways and other means of transport; (b) manpower availabilities, both local and regional, with possibilities for provisioning, estimates of cost and efficiency, and investigations of local working regulations; (c) determination of areas which could be opened up to exploitation after the construction of extraction routes, assessment of the railway routes available, and of the possibilities of loading logs onto ships in ports. Then a study should be made of fiscal and customs regulations in relation to their encouragement of or impediment to forest development; local and foreign markets for the timber; and local policy with regard to foreign capital.

3. Investigation of the possibilities for setting up forest industries. Any possibilities of this nature should be apparent from the general inventory of the forest. It is necessary that the required kinds and qualities of timber for different conversion industries should exist in quantity and that the economic conditions (cost of delivery at the mill per cubic meter, manpower, taxes, public services, markets, etc.) be favorable. It should even be possible to select those forest reserves which, because of their location, ease of working, and good stocking, could readily furnish sustained supplies to new mills.

A second phase. It is possible that in a second phase technical assistance could be rendered in the actual setting up of mills and in finding the necessary capital investment. But this would of course depend on whether the reports and studies of the technicians revealed all the necessary conditions to be satisfactory.

After having estimated the forest resource and examined the ways of utilizing the timber available, technical assistance experts should recommend appropriate methods of exploitation and the equipment which they consider best suited to the local conditions. In the case of easily accessible forests, the question of their permanent management should also be given consideration, with a view to carrying out exploitation as nearly as possible on sustained-yield principles and avoiding impoverishment of the growing stock.

Forest Conservation

Technical assistance should not be limited to determining the best means of developing forest exploitation. Attention must be paid to means for preserving the forest capital from destruction and also to the possibilities for increasing it for the benefit of future generations. Too often forest utilization merely consists of exploiting the forest capital that has accumulated up to the time the fellers move in. The choice trees and the best timbers are taken out with no regard for regeneration or the future of the forest. It is easy to appreciate that it is often impossible to do anything else; the timber man can only exploit those timbers which he is sure of marketing, and it is not his job to be concerned over the future of the forest. That is the responsibility of the public services which must carry out the measures necessary to compensate for any depletion of the growing stock. They should, if they are well advised, undertake silvicultural operations suited to the species concerned and the forest conditions. They should devote part of the revenue derived from exploitation to forest improvement, so as to create a more valuable crop which might one day be of benefit to the country as a whole.

Rather than traditional animal power

Photograph by courtesy of Allis-Chalmers Company

In French territories of tropical Africa we have come to realize that the exploitation of the most valuable species such as mahogany, iroko, okoumé, etc., has not been balanced by natural regeneration of these species, so that the forest has become impoverished. In fact, the exploitation of certain species will soon be at an end, because there will be no trees to exploit. Without proper silvicultural treatment, commercial exploitation of the tropical forest could not last long. It has often been said that the tropical forest is poor forest. This is true, but with proper silviculture the environment could support rich forests. This consideration must not be overlooked. Any modern state that does not strive to improve its forest wealth will some day have to reconstitute its forests, and it will find the delay a costly one.

Silvicultural Methods

For some time foresters in Africa have been studying the ecological requirements of selected species and the best conditions for securing their regeneration by natural or artificial means. Natural regeneration is best suited for shade-bearing species, which often occur in stands that are homogenous or nearly so and which can successfully regenerate themselves in the shaded understory. For the light-demanding types such as okoumé and limba, which are both valuable species, plants or seeds are set out in wide clearings in the forest. For other species young seedlings from nurseries are planted in narrow parallel clearings in the forest. Circumstances dictate whether intensive or extensive methods are best employed, but the aim is always to secure the best results at the least cost. As often as possible recourse is had to taungya 1 operations, whereby valuable trees are established in the clearings used for cultivation by the local populations.

1 Planting and tending of tree species at the time the crops arc cultivated. When the crops have been harvested, the trees remain to grow into high forest.

Large-scale forest development often demands machines.

Photograph by courtesy of the Netherlands Information Bureau

The ways to investigate the reconstitution and improvement of the forest are simple and straightforward: First, direct observation in the forest to study the characteristics of the trees; then, the creation of an arboretum and of silvicultural experiment stations. Planting programs must be drawn up taking account of the results of both the observations and the experiments.

Problems of Deforestation

The danger of forest destruction cannot be overemphasized. It is a common problem and a difficult one, because it involves traditional local customs. Since attempts to control these practices usually encounter social and political complications, it is unlikely that deforestation can be halted immediately by law. It is still necessary, however, to attempt to open the eyes of all the inhabitants, particularly national leaders, to the dangers to the future prosperity of their country. Before such an educational program can be carried out a thorough study must be made of the local conditions and practices that lead to forest destruction and of the means of arresting it. In my opinion, technical assistance experts have an important role to play in work of this kind.

In tropical French African territories attempts are made to set limits to excessive forest destruction by allocating certain parts of the forest to the various communities, thereby limiting the area which can be subjected to clearing, enabling fire protection to be introduced, and assuring at least a minimum of control over the populations practicing shifting cultivation. This procedure requires the making of maps and the carrying out of forest surveys - tasks which are among the fundamental jobs of forest services. This is a minimum type of forest protection which can readily be adopted in all tropical countries. In Africa many millions of hectares have been delimited, but the work is still far from being finished. Today, mapping and classification can be speeded up considerably with aerial surveys and photography.

Training of Forest Staffs

The training of forest staffs, both governmental and private, is another field in which technical assistance can be valuable; no improvements can be made until there are men trained to carry them out. Technical assistance can take several forms: First, advanced training for existing personnel through collaboration with experts in the field; secondly, organization of specialized training abroad, when local facilities do not exist; and finally, direct participation in, or at least advice on, the creation of forestry schools to train complete staffs - senior officers and rangers and forest guards.

The ways in which technical assistance can help underdeveloped tropical countries are many. Experts can undertake general forest inventories and economic and silvicultural studies. Sometimes they can advise on the actual establishment of a silvicultural experiment station, determine the correct techniques for exploitation and forest industries, select forest areas to be protected or exploited under satisfactory safeguards, or arrange for the training of professional staffs. Still further technical assistance can be rendered through direct participation in programs for the development of utilization and conservation of forests, if a country so requests; for example, by carrying out the necessary research on timbers in laboratories, initiating forest management plans, organizing study courses abroad, or by creating and helping to run national forestry schools. Lastly, as I see it, technical assistance can lay the groundwork for the eventual entry of foreign capital for the installation of forest industries.

How technical assistance will actually function in practice is not easy to foretell. Missions of experts visiting a country for a short period can produce significant reports, but their efforts are necessarily limited to their recommendations which may or may not be acted upon. For technical assistance really to have any lasting effect, a mission should stay in a country for several years, and it should consist not only of foreign specialists but also of nationals of the recipient country who will form the nucleus for the future organization, direction, and execution of technical assistance programs. The over-all direction should lie with the most qualified expert, who will lay down the general directives, organize and control the work, and assess the results and the experience gained, but the mission must work in close liaison with the appropriate local services and with their full support, for without such collaboration I doubt that any really useful result would be forthcoming. Finally, a mission must be provided with all the necessary funds, transport, personnel, and research facilities, if it is to do the job before it.

The activities of technical assistance missions fall into several stages, the preparatory phase being of prime importance. The general survey is fundamental; its purpose is to sort out the problems, assess their relative importance, and outline the difficulties of the task ahead. Only then can the plan of work be elaborated.

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