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Forest management and the battle of paradigms

M.L. Wilkie

Mette Løyche Wilkie is Forestry Officer (Forest Management), FAO, Rome.

What are the differences between “sustainable
forest management” and the “ecosystem approach” –
and how does the question concern forest managers?

“Sustainable forest management”, “ecologically sustainable forest management”, “forest ecosystem management”, the “ecosystem approach” to forest management and “systemic forest management” were among the many terms used to describe current forest management concepts and practices at the recent XII World Forestry Congress.

All of the above concepts incorporate the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, environmental and sociocultural sustainability – some with stronger emphasis on particular aspects of these. The use of different terms may be confusing and the distinction among them may, at times, seem blurred, particularly to forest managers facing their practical application.

However, the debate on terminology and definitions and the further evolution of the concepts continue. Recent discussions in the international forest dialogue have focused on the extent to which the concepts of sustainable forest management, as defined within the framework established by the Forest Principles adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and the ecosystem approach, as defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and as applied to forests, are similar and, where they differ, how they could be integrated.1

The Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) of CBD called on its secretariat to convene a meeting of experts to compare the ecosystem approach with sustainable forest management, and to develop proposals for their integration. The third meeting of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF-3, May 2003) likewise invited members of UNFF and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), which supports UNFF, to provide their views towards clarification of the concepts of the ecosystem approach and sustainable forest management for presentation to UNFF-4 in May 2004.

Why is this discussion going on, and why is it important for forest managers?

First, the need for “clarification” may arise from an inability to communicate effectively. It appears that foresters have still not succeeded in convincing environmentalists and the general public that sustainable forest management is more than simply another term for cutting down trees. And foresters often see environmentalists as idealists ignoring the socio-economic context in which forest conservation and management take place.

Second, there seems to be some lack of coordination and communication (and even rivalry) between national and international agencies tasked with dealing with forest issues and those dealing with the environment at large.

The discussion may have implications both for forest managers and for national planning, monitoring, assessment and reporting. Which approach should forest managers apply? Can countries use the same criteria and indicators for monitoring and reporting on progress towards sustainable forest management and towards application of the ecosystem approach to forests?

What, if any, are the differences between sustainable forest management and the ecosystem approach?

Comparison of the underlying principles of sustainable forest management and the ecosystem approach reveals few differences other than the fact that sustainable forest management deals largely with only one kind of ecosystem – forests – whereas the ecosystem approach addresses a range of ecosystems.

• Management, conservation and sustainable use of renewable natural resources are the stated goals of both concepts. The guiding objective of the Forest Principles underlying the concept of sustainable forest management is “to contribute to the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests and to provide for their multiple and complementary functions and uses”, while COP-5 of the CBD defined the ecosystem approach as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”.

• Both concepts are guided by a set of principles, which, although similar, differ slightly in scope. The ecosystem approach principles are, for example, less concerned with the enabling conditions and prerequisites at the national and international levels than the Forest Principles. Some aspects included in the Forest Principles (e.g. trade in forest products, forest protection) are, understandably, specific to forests and less concerned with other ecosystems and sectors.

• Principles and concepts common to both sustainable forest management and the ecosystem approach include: national sovereignty over resources; duty of care (the responsibility for taking care of the environment and preventing adverse environmental impacts, even across borders); the “polluter pays” principle; participation; intergenerational equity; conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning; multiple and sustainable use of resources; the need for environmental impact assessments; and equitable benefit sharing.

• The few conceptual differences between the two sets of principles stem from different starting points (production forests and forest management2versus conservation ecology3) but are minimal for all practical purposes. In terms of field-level application the differences are likely to be overshadowed by divergent interpretations and variations in local conditions and in capabilities for implementation.

• In the development of the sustainable forest management concept since UNCED, emphasis has been placed on what precisely needs to be achieved and how that achievement can be measured, monitored and demonstrated (i.e. through criteria and indicators), whereas the development of the ecosystem approach, which is more recent, still appears to be focused mainly on the conceptual level, i.e. the content and comprehensiveness of the principles.

The CBD Expert Meeting on the Ecosystem Approach, held in July 2003, which discussed the concepts of sustainable forest management and the ecosystem approach, reached the following conclusions.

• Sustainable forest management can be considered as a means of applying the ecosystem approach to forests. Further, there is potential for the tools developed for sustainable forest management to be used to help implement the ecosystem approach. These tools include inter alia criteria and indicators, national forest programmes, “model forests” and certification schemes. There is substantial potential for mutual learning among those implementing both approaches.

• To help integrate the two concepts, there is a need for the ecosystem approach to embrace processes that are based on clear statements of visions, objectives and goals for defined regions or issues, thereby becoming more outcome oriented. In sustainable forest management, greater emphasis should be placed on better cross-sectoral integration and intersectoral collaboration; on the interactions between forests and other biomes or habitat types within a landscape; and on biodiversity conservation issues.

Delegates at the recent ninth meeting of the CBD Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) agreed with the above conclusions.

What are the implications for forest management?

No comprehensive study has yet been undertaken to compare the outcomes of the application of the two approaches to a given forest area. However, with limited conceptual differences, it is unlikely that the results will differ significantly.

However, this does not mean that forest managers should simply conduct business as usual. Whatever the “forest management paradigm” may be, it is important to keep in mind that the forest ecosystem is dynamic and exists in a constantly changing sociocultural and economic setting, where knowledge is imperfect at best and where human needs, values and perceptions evolve over time. Forest managers must be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances and new knowledge, incorporating an “active learning” process into day-to-day activities while striving for continued improvement in knowledge, practices and approaches.

Indeed, if intersectoral collaboration is strengthened as recommended by CBD, not only management practices but also communication among the different stakeholders may improve.

1 The full title of the Forest Principles is the Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement on Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forest. The text can be found at: 
The principles of the ecosystem approach are contained in Decision V/6 of COP-5 of CBD and can be found at:

2 Principle 2b of the Forest Principles: “Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.”

3 Principle 5 of the Ecosystem Approach: “Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach.”

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