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Tropical forests:

J.A. Sayer

Jeffrey A. Sayer is the Director-General
of the Center for International Forestry
Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia.

How will tropical forests be managed in 2050? There are many plausible scenarios. For instance, economic efficiency may encourage very intensive, specialized forest management for specific, limited objectives: fibre from short-rotation plantations of genetically modified super-trees, for example, and intensively managed plantations of genetically modified Brazil nuts, rattans and the like. Meanwhile, biodiversity will be conserved in rigorously protected "pristine" forests. However, other development trajectories are plausible. In contrast to the move towards large-scale production systems based on uniform commodities and benefiting from economies of scale, there is also a move towards small-scale self-sufficiency, and a premium on sustainability.

In precision agriculture a combination of modern science and traditional knowledge makes it possible to sustain high yields of diverse products in small areas. In many poorer areas of the world this seems to provide the best hope for improved well-being of the poor, as reflected in trends in rich countries where consumers put a premium on food from organic farms in which external inputs are minimized and sustainability and product quality are the main objectives. What is there to prevent a move to precision forestry? Science is reaching the stage at which it could enable the intensive management of highly complex forest systems. Computer simulations could make it possible to manage forests for an optimal mix of all products and services.

This ideal is already a partial reality in home gardens in many parts of the tropics and in the complex managed agroforestry systems of Sumatra and Central America. It has long existed in the carefully managed small-scale forests of many parts of Europe. Biodiversity, amenity, hunting, timber and non-wood products can all be derived from the same small, private or community-owned forests. The challenge is how to compensate small-scale foresters for the contributions that their forests make to the global environment. Emerging technologies in remote sensing and spatial modelling may make it possible to assess the contribution of these forests to carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation - and thus provide a basis for payment for environmental public goods.

Local or social forestry is not new in the tropics, but it is now being promoted mainly in situations where natural forests have all but disappeared. It has most success in the so-called "low forest cover countries" and focuses almost exclusively on meeting local needs for forest products. In forest-rich countries, where the environmental public good values of forests are in jeopardy, the prevailing paradigm is still based on a model of state control and economies of scale. If forests are to make their full contribution to the lives of the peoples of tropical countries in 2050, I believe a balance will be required between these two development models. Small-scale local approaches to forestry will not be competitive in global commodity markets or in the management of large biodiversity reserves, but if small-scale forest owners can capture the global values of sequestered carbon and biodiversity they could enjoy higher living standards while conserving their forests.

The Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change is debating the extent to which forests will be included within the Clean Development Mechanism. The Convention on Biological Diversity is grappling with the issue of payment of the incremental costs of conservation. The future of tropical forests may depend on whether these two intergovernmental mechanisms can channel resources into integrated small-scale local forestry. If they can operate only with the large-scale segregated model, they will be pursuing an agenda that is irrelevant to a very large proportion of the people of the tropics. People act rationally and, if most people in the tropics get no direct benefit from the conservation of the environmental values of their forests, those environmental values will not be conserved.

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