Tropical forests cover much of the area located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and represent about 10% of the world's total surface area. Tropical forests constitute a delicate environment of paramount importance for the well being of the whole planet. They supply many useful products, including: wood; fruit; vegetables; mushrooms; medicines; oils; gums; resins; waxes; sweeteners; condiments; colourings; game; and recreation opportunities.
The biological diversity found in tropical forests far exceeds that of all other land ecosystems. These forests shelter at least 50% of all the world's animal and plant species, only a small proportion of which has been described and studied to date. These forests also play an essential role in climate regulation at local and global levels and maintaining global biophysical equilibrium, in particular by regulating water and carbon cycles.
The underlying causes of the problems faced by tropical forests are complex, interrelated and, in many instances, occur due to factors outside the forestry sector. Causes include:
_ overestimation of forest resources and underestimation of the benefits accruing from forest conversion;
_ a lack of attention to the environmental and social costs of forest harvesting and clearing; and
_ the real (or perceived) high risk and high cost of sustainable forest management.
Underlying causes also include subsidies that encourage forest conversion and population of uninhabited forest areas, road construction, structural adjustment and poverty alleviation programmes, land insecurity, underlying population pressure, political instability and policy failures at national and international levels. Many policies also tend to encourage the movement of people towards forest areas to improve livelihoods and encourage speculation and forest conversion. These multiple cause-effect relationships necessitate the development of inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary approaches to forest policy-making and management.
Sustainable forest management cannot be reduced to a merely scientific and technical debate. A global approach to sustainable forest management should take into account biological, socio-cultural and economic parameters as well. The creation of favourable institutional, economic and financial conditions is essential in order for the management of tropical forests to be sustainable. It is also necessary that all stakeholders have a constructive dialogue, to open up areas of ability and action outside their own specialisations and interest, in order to understand one another better and to find appropriate solutions to the permanently complex problems they encounter in managing tropical forests.
Figure 3: An example of some of the tools available to promote sustainable forest management
The tools for building this dialogue largely concern controlling access to resources and supervising forest production activities (see Figure 3). However, the broader issues should be discussed seriously and in a spirit of genuine partnership. Recognition of the role and responsibilities of all stakeholders is likely to offer the best guarantee for sustainable forest management.