Conservation of forest biological diversity, including forest genetic resources, is essential for sustaining the productive values of forests, for maintaining the health and vitality of forest ecosystems and, thereby, for maintaining their protective and environmental roles.
The greatest threat to forests and the diversity housed in them is the conversion of forests into other land uses. Increasing pressure from human populations and aspirations for higher standards of living, without due concern to sustainability of resources underpinning such developments, heighten concerns in this regard. While it is inevitable that land use changes will occur in the future, such changes should be planned to help ensure that complementary goals are achieved. This can be done by including concerns for conservation as a major component in land use planning and management strategies.
Protected areas constitute an important component of conservation strategies. However, protected areas are inadequate, on their own, to assure the conservation of trees and other forest-related species. Even if the often-quoted global target of 10-12% were attained and the conserved areas were appropriately located and properly managed, which unfortunately is often not the case at the present time, it has been estimated that only some 50% of species in the tropics could be safeguarded in such areas in the next few decades.
Managed production forests play a key role in programmes aimed at the conservation of genetic resources and intra-specific variation in socio-economically important species, and are a necessary complement to management for conservation in protected areas. Attention should be given both to the management of generally species-rich secondary forests in various stages of development, and to the conservation of genetic resources of species characteristic of the mature phase or climax forest. In situ, or on-site, conservation should be complemented by the incorporation of genetic concerns in tree breeding programmes, and by the conservation of especially valuable genetic materials in arboreta and other ex situ (off-site) collections.
The domination of short-term economic and market forces over ecological and technical considerations have frequently been the cause of past failures to attain sustainability in natural forest management and conservation. Harvesting of wood is still at present commonly the only large-scale management intervention in tropical forests. Depending on the timing, intensity, frequency, methods of selection employed and the effectiveness of protection and management of subsequent regeneration, harvesting may either reduce or enhance species and intra-specfic diversity. Depending on overall methodologies as well as intrinsic characteristics of specific ecosystems treated, harvesting may also lead to varying degrees of transition to other successional stages and other cyclical changes, over time. From productive, protective as well as biological conservation points of view, it is important that harvesting be complemented by appropriate silvicultural interventions, in which due consideration is given to genetic principles.
There are no fundamental technical obstacles to meeting conservation objectives in forests managed for timber, non-wood products and the protection of soil and water. The main problem in achieving conservation goals is the lack of adequate institutional and political frameworks under which land use and operational management choices, fair to all stakeholders, can be considered, efficiently implemented and monitored. In addition to unplanned changes in land use, the failure to comply with prevailing forest management prescriptions has been to date a common cause of unnecessary damage to site, vegetation and regeneration in all kinds of forests.
While tree planting and forest plantation establishment, if properly planned, can help conserve genetic resources of priority forest tree species, there are genetic risks associated with increased national and international movement of forest reproductive materials. These relate to the risks of genetic pollution of local genepools by pollen from introduced populations of hybridizing species or provenances. Most forest tree species exhibit considerable population divergence in genetically based characteristics. Losing local populations, or losing their genetic identity through contamination by pollen of non-native sources, may diminish the possibilities of future adaptation of populations to continuing environmental change. It will also decisively increase the amount of effort needed in improvement and breeding for specified end uses or environments. It is thus important to carefully consider the introduction of non-native reproductive materials, and to accurately document such introductions, should they be justified. The genetic identity of local provenances must, in all instances, be safeguarded through parallel, active conservation measures.
The management of genetic resources aimed at their conservation, enhancement and sustainable use is a complex challenge, in which solutions will vary not only according to the variation and variation patterns of target species and their intrinsic genetic characteristics and biological and silvicultural behaviour, but also according to the amount of basic knowledge available on these species, perceived threats, the immediacy of use. Existing levels of institutional support and stability, institutional capacities to tackle the task in a technically sound, economically feasible and socially acceptable manner, and levels of funding to shoulder related responsibilities in the short as well as in the long term, are also of decisive importance when deciding on strategies and choosing among options. As decisions about priorities will depend on value judgements it is clear that dialogue and involvement of all stakeholders in planning as well as in execution of programmes is of utmost importance.
Complementing the technical and scientific challenges, which often absorb most of the attention of technical and scientific staff, there is a need and an obligation to inform politicians, decision-makers and the public at large of the strategies and methodologies available to respond to the challenges of conservation and genetic management, priorities, and likely consequences of non-action. Only if these are adequately understood can we hope for much needed support at all levels, including at the national policy-making level, which is essential for institutional support and an absolute provision for lasting resource allocation
Efforts to conserve and enhance forest genetic resources for present-day and future use will involve action related to the management of protected areas, the sustainable management of production and protection forests, careful planning of forest plantation establishment, and the sound management of tree breeding activities. Incorporation of conservation concerns in all of these fields of action offers the only lasting solution to the challenge of conservation.
The key to success will lie in the development of programmes which harmonize conservation and sustainable utilization of biological diversity and forest genetic resources within a mosaic of land use options and which, at the same time, include a strong element of active gene management. Sustainability of action over time will be based on genuine efforts to meet the needs and aspirations of all interested parties, and will require close and continuing collaboration, dialogue and involvement of stakeholders in planning and execution of related programmes, including Government and national academic and research institutions, private owners, industry and national non-governmental organizations. Mechanisms must also be in place to ensure that needs and aspirations of local communities are duly considered.
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