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In any discussion of the question of "sustainability", it is necessary to consider a number of temporal, economic, ecological and socio-cultural factors.

2.1 Timescale

Most ecological systems, such as forests, are in a permanent state of flux caused by naturally evolving biological processes and changes. Sustainable forest management systems attempt to develop systems whereby the renewable resource (e.g. wood or non-wood forest products) can be extracted without harming the environment and future generations (this implicitly assumes that such resources are permanent and renewable). A problem that arises when considering such systems is the question of the time-scale that should be used when analysing the sustainability of any particular forest management system. A lack of attention to this issue has caused numerous misunderstandings and the failure of many forestry development projects. A further complication is that perceptions about the appropriate time scale to use for analysis vary between different parties and individuals and can depend upon whether the analysis is considering sustainability in a biological, physical, financial or economic sense. If it is not possible to agree upon the appropriate time scale to use in any analysis of sustainability, it is advisable to take a precautionary approach to this issue.

2.2 Economic considerations

The diversity of tropical forests is reflected in the diversity of economic activities that are carried out within them. As forest resources become scarcer, there is greater competition for access to forest goods and services and conflicts of interest become more commonplace. Forests also often suffer from a perception that they are of less value than alternative land uses, although this is often associated with the problem of unclear property rights. Consequently, access to forest goods and services needs to be regulated in time and space. Forest conservation or sustainable forest management needs to be economically justified at different levels of society and amongst different groups. As part of this process, it is also important to note that forest areas cannot be managed independently from agricultural areas because both types of areas compete to meet similar basic needs and should therefore be considered together within the overall context of sustainable development.

2.3 Socio-cultural aspects of forest management

Sustainable forest management will only succeed if all stakeholders are fully aware of their own impact on forests and forestry issues and are held accountable for their actions. Policies and measures that are based on consultation and developed from the bottom-up should generally be preferred to those that are developed from the top-down. This requires that people should be educated, informed and made aware about the impacts of their activities so that they can incorporate sustainable forest management objectives into their decision-making. For this to happen, it is important that the role and rights of each stakeholder are acknowledged and understood. The establishment of an open and constructive dialogue is a necessary condition that must be met in order to find appropriate solutions to the complex problems involved in sustainable forest management. This requires that all stakeholders in forest management (including both forestry company personnel and local people) operate in healthy and satisfactory conditions.

2.4 Ecological considerations

Tropical forests cover only 7% of the world's total land area, but contain more than 50% of all living species. Thus, they contain some of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet and are rich in species (some of which may not yet have even been discovered). The long-term value of forest genetic resources cannot currently be quantified because, despite the exhaustive efforts of forest taxonomists, the value and variety of species that they contain, along with the needs of future generations, is still not known or understood. Emphasis on biological diversity usually leads to the formulation of forestry policies for natural forests that concentrate on objectives of conservation or preservation, whereas sustainable forest management recognises the economic necessities of sustainable production of goods and services (see, for example, Table 3, which shows how tropical forests are currently classified according to the primary objective of management). Where environmental and economic needs conflict, conservation and development are not always incompatible and can usually be reconciled through some form of sustainable forest management.

Table 3: Area of tropical forest categorised by main management objective in 1990

Management objective

Asia and the Pacific


South America and the Caribbean






















Note: areas are in million ha. Source: FAO (1995).

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