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Changing forestry scenarios: some history and a few speculations

C.T.S. Nair

C.T.S. Nair is Senior Forestry Officer
in the Forestry Policy and Planning
Division, FAO Forestry Department.

An analysis of changes in forestry, suggesting how forces outside the sector could alter its development far more than interventions intended to create change within the sector.

We are like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such conditions the fish never asks where the next flip or flop will bring it. It senses only that its present position is intolerable and something must be tried.

Anonymous Chinese saying

Change is integral to life, but it is mysterious, threatening to established arrangements and systems, challenging to understand and unravel and, more important, difficult to predict. It is also highly relative and contextual to the social and cultural environment. In this so-called era of rapid changes, it may be difficult to distinguish between changes that are superficial and those that are fundamental. Nevertheless, it is important to consider factors that will influence forestry, how priorities could change, what the broad direction of development could be and what should be done to enhance the contribution of forestry to the well-being of society. As the relationship between nature and society is being redefined, forestry is at centre-stage of political discussion and debate at all levels - the local, the national and the global. With the multitude of ideas that are emerging, it is necessary to understand what may lead to meaningful changes and what may not.

This article looks at some of the fundamental issues relating to change in forestry, focusing specifically on how factors outside the sector overwhelmingly determine the direction of its development. The first section, which draws on the personal experience of the author in the Indian state of Kerala, discusses some of the developments (largely unpredictable) in forestry during the past few decades. The article then examines the underlying economic, social, environmental and technological changes that are influencing these developments - an analysis applicable to most developing countries. Finally, it indicates some of the emerging changes and the options available for dealing with them.


The early 1970s

Most of the people who joined the Indian Forest Service in the 1970s soon began to realize that forestry was very different from the classical framework then being taught in the training institutions. Forest management focused on producing timber, in accordance with an approved management plan and in order to fulfil the revenue target stipulated in the government's annual budget. There was an assumption, rooted in the sustained yield principle, that the system would continue to remain in equilibrium and that all that was required was to maintain the sanctity of forest boundaries, prevent encroachment and illicit removal and manage the forests by adhering to the prescriptions of the working plan (which was a document outlining the operational details of activities to be undertaken in a forest area over a period of ten to 15 years). The most "progressive" foresters at that time were those who advocated forest-based industrial development through the establishment of fast-growing, short-rotation plantations, and the conversion of "less valuable" natural forests. Concepts such as profitability and rates of return were being discussed largely by a fringe group, which was considered radical by the mainstream of foresters.

Products that were difficult to manage and of no importance as a source of revenue to the government were grouped as "minor forest products", and no efforts were made to manage them systematically; local communities enjoyed free access to non-wood forest products (NWFPs), as long as the collection of those products did not adversely affect the growth of valuable trees (FAO, 1984). Participatory approaches were unheard of, except when plantations were to be raised at low cost under the taungya system (an agroforestry system in which the interspaces of trees were cultivated with agricultural crops during the first few years, and which was introduced largely to reduce the costs of plantation establishment).

The Internet and e-mail, unheard of 30 years ago, have become ubiquitous even in small villages in Kerala

- N. Rubery

In some remote areas, the forest department supported the development of forest villages, primarily to ensure that labour was available for various forestry operations, and maintained a paternalistic relationship with the local communities. Such terms as climate change and biodiversity were unfamiliar even to planners and policy-makers. Large areas of forests were protected incidentally, not out of concern for enhancing environmental values and services but because of their inaccessibility for timber production or other alternative uses. Improved accessibility invariably led to logging or more intensive uses such as forest plantations or the cultivation of more remunerative crops.

Communication systems were at best primitive. Telephones and electricity were luxuries, especially in the forest camps. Urgent messages from the office of the Conservator of Forests, located 200 km away, arrived a week later through the postal system, and this was regarded as quite efficient. More time was available to attend to silvicultural work, and foresters could afford to stay for days in the forests, undertaking inventory, supervising plantation establishment, marking for selection felling and so on. The tools and techniques used were rather basic, and efficiency and accuracy depended on personal efforts.

Notwithstanding the efforts to adhere to classical forestry principles, tensions or ruptures in the system were already evident. Increasingly, more time was being spent dealing with illicit felling and illegal occupation of forest reserves. High population density, coupled with the high potential of land for more profitable alternative uses, encouraged encroachment into reserved forests. Efforts to evict encroachers resulted in political interventions, and forest encroachment was a major issue that attracted the attention of all political parties. Despite the efforts of many committed foresters, very few of these encroachments could be reclaimed, and most in due course had to be "regularized" by assigning the land to the occupants (Chundamannil, 1993). This encouraged successive cycles of encroachments, political pressures and the subsequent regularization of encroachments, and a substantial proportion of the easily accessible reserved forests was thereby transformed into agricultural land.

The scenario in 2000

Changes are difficult to perceive for those who have lived through them and adapted to them gradually. However, when comparisons are made between situations at different periods, the changes are more striking. The author's recent visit to Kerala and discussions with officials helped to cast light on the magnitude of the changes that have occurred during the past three decades. The forestry situation, the priorities, the tools and techniques, the management system and the perception of the people have all changed considerably since the 1970s.

The working plan, once the most important tool guiding forest management, has become less relevant. Most divisional forest officers have outgrown the classical framework of forestry and are more conversant with broader issues, including rural development, food security and biodiversity conservation. The decentralization of administration and the transfer of development responsibilities to elected bodies at the local level is changing the traditional hierarchy of the forest department. Increasingly, officials at the district level are answerable to the local government, and even funds for forestry development are made available through local bodies. Participatory approaches such as joint forest management have found wider acceptance. The privatization of public sector enterprises (including forest plantations under public ownership) is no longer an anathema, even for left-leaning political organizations.

Mobile phones and e-mail, not even dreamed of 30 years ago, are becoming more common. Some of the politicians who vehemently opposed computerization a few years ago have become its ardent supporters. The ubiquitous press and television report on illicit logging or forest fires even in interior forest areas, creating wider awareness of what is happening to forests. There is widespread recognition that forests are no longer to be managed exclusively for timber, and a substantial area of natural forests has been set aside for the protection of biodiversity and for other environmental values.

"Minor forest products" have gained respectability as NWFPs, and an increase in the value of some of these has resulted in their domestication and cultivation (e.g. rattans, bamboo, medicinal plants). Civil society is increasingly playing a more proactive part in environmental protection, often using public interest litigation as a tool for influencing government and private sector decision-making. (For example, a public interest litigation in 1996 led to the Supreme Court of India imposing a ban on tree felling from natural forests.) Sawmills obtain timber from a variety of sources, ranging from local homesteads to distant countries such as Malaysia, Côte d'Ivoire and Myanmar, and this is facilitated by the reduction of import duties in response to World Trade Organization (WTO) stipulations. Import liberalization has had other effects, such as a drastic reduction in the prices of rubber and coconut, making forest clearance for the cultivatation of these crops unattractive. Globalization has changed consumption patterns, and what were considered luxuries in the 1970s are now perceived as necessities. More important, there has been a change in aspirations: ambitious and hardworking young people increasingly choose professions in software engineering and business management rather than joining the civil service, the preferred choice in the 1970s.

Losing the battle but winning the war

What has been the overall outcome of forestry efforts in India over the past three decades? Although foresters have been battling to maintain the sanctity of forest boundaries, and in spite of all that has been stipulated in forest policies and legislation, the planned and unplanned conversion of forests to other uses continued until recently. However, although it may seem as though the battle to protect the forests has been lost, there are signs of positive changes - primarily arising from factors that lie far outside the sector. Land use conflicts have become less intense, and consequently the rate of forest cover decline has decreased considerably in recent years. Annual deforestation in Kerala, estimated at more than 100 km2 in the 1970s (Chundamannil, 1993), has declined to about 5 km2, while for India as a whole there has been a net increase in forest cover, of 3 900 km2, according to recent estimates (Forest Survey of India, 1999). Homesteads and plantations of rubber, cashew and coconut, which are not taken into account in reported forest area, have become an important source of wood. More trees, including teak, are now grown in homesteads and, interestingly, some of the areas from which illegal occupants could not be evicted have more tree growth than those defined as "reserved forests".


The example in the last paragraph, which would be applicable to many other developing countries, indicates the unpredictability of changes and their impact on forestry. Even with the best forecasting tools that were available three decades ago, very few of the changes described could have been visualized. Sector analysis focused on measurable values and on estimating demand and supply, largely based on projecting historical trends. The key parameters considered in assessing the direction of forestry development were limited to population, urbanization and changes in income, supply and prices of substitutes. Fundamental system-wide changes in the economy as a whole could not be captured by such forecasting techniques; thus many changes visualized then were rather off the mark. Many intentional efforts to bring about changes in forestry had little impact, while most changes were unintentional and not necessarily the outcome of planned efforts.

Since changes in the rest of the system can alter development scenarios drastically, it is important to understand how system-wide changes take place and what may be done by foresters to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. For convenience, the changes could be categorized as economic, institutional, environmental or technological.

Economic changes

Among the major driving forces of change is the increasing economic integration and interdependency of countries. The rejection of centralized planning and the adoption of liberal economic policies have opened up economies, with the market mechanism becoming the most dominant determinant of change. Some of the impacts that are relevant to forestry include:

The impacts of globalization, which results in the easy movement of capital, technology, goods and services across national boundaries, are sometimes difficult to assess. The set of criteria previously used for measuring comparative advantage for investment in forestry (e.g. nearness to markets and raw material supplies; quality and quantity of raw material) is expanding to include very different criteria (e.g. need to reduce pollution; degree of openness of economies; barriers to trade).

Liberal economic policies have opened up opportunities for marketing forest services such as ecotourism - the Thekkadi wildlife sanctuary on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for example, has become an extremely popular site for tourism

- N. Rubery

Institutional changes

While globalization is increasing the interdependency of countries and societies, more pluralistic institutional arrangements are emerging (FAO, 1999). Improved access to information is changing the centre of power and authority and, as part of a larger process of devolution of administrative responsibilities with wider emphasis on participatory approaches, local communities are playing a lead role in resources management decisions. The involvement of the private sector in forestry, including forestry research, is increasing (Enters, Nair and Kaosa-ard, 1998).

Furthermore, increasing awareness of forestry issues has brought civil society to the forefront of influencing forestry decision-making (FAO, 1998a). Improved access to information, the media's new consciousness of the public and the emergence of democratically functioning and transparent institutions, as well as impartial and just mechanisms to redress grievances, have all enhanced the ability of civil society to intervene in critical issues of public interest.

Increased concern for environmental protection

Undoubtedly, the most important development affecting forestry in recent years is the increasing awareness of the environmental issues relating to forest resources management, with initiatives at all levels (including the global-level Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention to Combat Desertification and Framework Convention for Climate Change, which were initiated by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development [UNCED], and country-level efforts to revise forest policies) giving emphasis to environmental benefits. Outcomes of this awareness include ongoing efforts to develop and refine criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, certification and labelling, codes of logging practices and the extension of protected areas.

Technological changes

Developments in science and technology, both within and outside the forestry sector - more particularly the latter - have had a significant impact on forestry (FAO, 1998b). Advances have included enhanced utilization potential for several species, reduced raw material requirements through improved efficiency in processing, substitution and lowered emission of pollutants. Recycling has increased and, as in the case of paper, could drastically reduce the demand for wood (Abramovitz and Mattoon, 1999).

Research on biological aspects of forestry, including ecosystem processes, have enhanced the tools and techniques available for sustainable management of plantations and natural forests. Genetic selection, tree breeding and rapid multiplication techniques, coupled with refined site management practices, have enhanced the potential to realize higher productivity from tree plantations.

Developments in information and communication technologies are unleashing unprecedented changes. Resource monitoring capabilities, including imaging resolution and interpretation, have improved considerably. Forest cover changes, pest and disease infestations and outbreaks of fire are more easily monitored, and further improvements that will enable wider easy real-time access to resource information are a distinct possibility in the near future. The spread of e-mail and Internet access is improving the ability to communicate and thus to share information and experience. Distance is no longer a critical barrier for interaction among people. This is altering the structure and functions of organizations, with purpose-oriented networks becoming a dominant institutional arrangement (Nair and Dykstra, 1998), while the traditional vertically structured organizations are slowly fading out (EIU, 1997).


Given the potential of the economic, institutional and technological changes, why has the forestry situation failed to improve, or even worsened, in several countries during the past few years? Why is change rapid in some countries but painstakingly slow in others? In some cases efforts to bring about economic, institutional and technological changes are not possible to sustain, as the system as a whole in some way rejects them. The adoption of change seems to be largely dependent on system-wide developments and, more particularly, structural shifts in economies.

Structural changes in economies

Historically, agriculture (including animal husbandry) has been the main source of livelihood for most people in the early stages of economic development. Economic progress is largely dependent on the production of surpluses over and above consumption, and their transformation into other goods and services through either trade or investment. As populations grow, production is increased by bringing more land under cultivation or by intensifying agriculture through yield-enhancing technologies. Under the extensification scenario, forest cover tends to decline, as most agricultural expansion takes place on forest land. In many countries, agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy, and consequently population increase implies additional forest clearance for cultivation.

Shifts away from land-based activities occur largely with the emergence of other sectors. In several countries, the discovery of oil and natural gas has led to structural shifts in the economy (Wunder, 2000), with the extractive sector starting to contribute most of the gross domestic product and foreign exchange and accounting for most of the new job opportunities. In some countries, the growth of the manufacturing and services sectors has facilitated a shift from agriculture, reducing the pressure on land, thus slowing deforestation and, in some cases, even reversing the process. Dependence on land for the production of goods declines drastically as materials-based production improves or is replaced by knowledge-based industries. The attendant impact on forest cover is evident from the historical experience of most developed countries, and recently also from that of some developing countries.

Limits to structural shifts

If structural shifts in the economy can alter forest resource use patterns fundamentally, a key question is: What is the probability of such shifts taking place in most countries in the foreseeable future? Alternatively, what are the chances that such changes may not take place at all in some countries? In a highly interlinked and competitive global economy, the economic niches are increasingly being redefined and redrawn, largely on the basis of comparative advantages. This may limit significant structural changes in the economies.

For example, development of the manufacturing sector in many developing countries remains constrained by low investments, small markets or the lack of competitiveness of local production. Manufacturing in developing countries is often agriculture-based and its expansion tends to have a negative effect on forests because of increased raw material requirements. In several developing countries, the indigenous manufacturing sector has relied on highly protected internal markets. Economic liberalization is, however, resulting in major changes, and removal of import restrictions is often undermining local industries because of increased competition from cheaper, and at times better-quality, imported goods.

Although a number of countries are hoping to expand their services sectors to enhance income and employment, there are inherent limitations to such an option. Most of the high value-added service sectors, including mature sectors such as banking, commerce and shipping as well as the newer sectors such as entertainment, information, technology and finance, are centred in the developed countries, whereas most developing countries focus on services at the low end of the value-added spectrum.1 Even in the case of the "brain-power industries", which a number of countries are hoping to use for fast-track development, most of the services occupy low value-added niches - e.g. processing of credit card bills, "screwdriver technology" such as electronics assembly, and similar labour-intensive operations that take advantage of cheap labour. The potential for generating surplus from these activities is limited and there is very little scope for significant structural shifts.

Windows of opportunity provided by the development of the extractive sectors (e.g. oil and natural gas) have often been lost through private appropriation of the benefits or through the tendency to become too dependent on a single sector (Dale, 2000). When oil or natural gas (or for that matter any booming sector that generates a significant inflow of foreign exchange) becomes an important source of income, it pushes up the exchange rates, makes other sectors non-competitive and discourages diversification of the economy (a phenomenon sometimes called "Dutch disease" because it was first noted in the Netherlands in the 1960s following the discovery of large reserves of natural gas).


If major structural shifts are unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future, what will be the direction of changes and what are the implications for forestry? Will the future bring a situation of stable equilibrium that will enable most countries to bring about the necessary changes within the framework of the market mechanism? There are reasons to believe that changes could take place in new directions, largely because of the emergence of new fault lines in the global social and economic system.

Fault lines, disequilibrium and new scenarios

Predictable changes take place under equilibrium conditions in which it is easy to assess and understand the changes, whereas system-wide changes occur under disequilibrium conditions. As society develops and evolves, there are always new fault lines along which major changes take place. During most of the latter half of the twentieth century, the political-economic divide between the centrally planned and the market economies was the major fault line at the global level (Thurow, 1996). This divide tended to overshadow other fault lines. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emerging dominance of the market mechanism were the major changes during the past decade.

However, the end of the cold war has brought to the surface some dormant or unnoticed fault lines. Many of the issues, such as authoritarianism, violation of human rights and corruption, that were overlooked (or sometimes tacitly approved or tolerated) to keep countries within a given political bloc have become unacceptable. Emphasis on democratic decision-making is percolating to the subnational level, resulting in efforts to devolve administrative responsibility to local levels. The emphasis on human rights is lending support to ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, often fuelling new conflicts and sometimes undermining the concept of nation states. Market-oriented development, especially increased flow of funds, technology and goods and services, is blurring national borders (Giddens, 1998). Alliances or interest groups that cut across countries are becoming important players in the economic, social and political fields.

In a less polarized world with weaker nation states, new tensions are already surfacing which will have direct and indirect impacts on natural resources management, including forestry. These tensions include:

Ruptures or tensions along the above fault lines are already evident. The large multinational companies, which are now consolidating their position through mergers, acquisitions and improved technologies, will face increasing pressure. In many cases, future conflicts will be between very active, highly networked organizations, representing the interests of a multitude of diverse groups, and economically powerful multinational corporations.2

The rapid growth of information and communication technology is accelerating the process of change along the fault lines, with the increasing emergence of groups and communities that have a strong local base but interact in a transnational environment. There may also be strong local groups that are excluded from or unable to take advantage of the market mechanism. While the market mechanism has triumphed in recent years, it will have to adapt to a situation where new non-market systems are becoming an integral part of the economic and institutional framework.


Since there is uncertainty about the precise nature of future changes, it is difficult to indicate how forestry today should gear itself to adapt to those changes. Although in many situations the traditional problems will persist for some time, it is imperative that foresters and forestry organizations foresee changes beyond the immediate future and are prepared to adapt to emerging situations. Some of the most important changes that could be envisaged are outlined in the following sections.

Changing role of organizations

National-level objectives, programmes and plans will become less relevant as local communities, subnational entities and the private sector become the dominant forces in forest resources management decision-making. It is quite likely that forestry as a distinct sector or profession will cease to be relevant and will be integrated into a much broader framework encompassing all natural resources sectors. The role of national entities, especially hierarchically structured organizations such as forest departments, will diminish considerably. The ability of traditional forestry organizations to influence forest management - in terms of knowledge, resources, acceptance by stakeholders, etc. - has already declined considerably. Possible future roles for such organizations will be as impartial arbitrators to facilitate resolution of conflicts among the large number of emerging players, and as apex bodies to develop standards for the various practices that are acceptable to the diverse players. Since most of the productive functions will be performed by farmers, communities and private enterprises, the public sector is unlikely to have any major role in wood production. At most its domain will be limited to managing public goods and services, often under contractual arrangements.

New skills and approaches

Environmental issues, especially those relating to protection of watersheds and biodiversity, are becoming more prominent. Although ensuring the sustain-ability of public goods supply will still be a public domain responsibility, the approach will have to be very different from what it is today. Those who have to refrain from their usual activities to ensure the flow of environmental services for others will require appropriate compensation. Improved technologies for resource monitoring and fine-tuned management practices will have to be developed to ensure that all parties comply with their obligations. While the criteria and indicators for this will be developed at the national level, implementation and monitoring will take place at the local level. Substantial improvement may also be required in negotiation skills and conflict management at the local level, and highly transparent systems of resources management will have to be implemented.


Humanity is moving into a period of high turbulence, accelerated by the multitude of changes taking place. As societies repair large and small economic, environmental and social ruptures and develop new frameworks for a better relationship with nature, forestry as we see it today will have to undergo changes. People and institutions generally react to change by:

Generally most efforts are reactive, falling into the first three categories. To survive and contribute to social and economic development, probably only the fourth option is viable, although even it may turn out to be "self-destructive", requiring drastic changes in the way forestry is organized now.


1 Tourism, especially ecotourism, has been identified as one potential area of advantage for some of the developing countries, and there are efforts to promote community-managed ecotourism to ensure that local communities are able to capture a substantial proportion of the benefits. However, it is important to be aware of the limitations of ecotourism, including those related to its long-term sustainability (Elegant, 2000).

2 The activist demonstrations during the WTO meeting in Seattle, Washington, the United States, in late 1999 are an example of how a multitude of groups with a common purpose can influence decision-making.

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