Since the first United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm (1972), forests in general, and tropical forests in particular, have been receiving increasing attention from the world community. A high point was reached at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (1992) which devoted a full chapter of its Agenda 21 (entitled “Combating deforestation”) to forest conservation and development and adopted the “non-legally binding, authoritative statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests”.
A major contributory factor to this concern for the current state of tropical forests has been the large degree of uncertainty associated with the information on rate of deforestation. Several related questions have been posed by policy-makers, the scientific community and the public at large. What is the area of the remaining tropical forests? At what rate are they being depleted? Is the rate of deforestation accelerating or slowing down? What are the causes? What are the ecological, economic and social impacts? And so on.
The FAO/UNEP Tropical Forest Resources Assessment completed in 1982 provided an answer to some of these questions. However, as time passed, the figures became out of date and the concern grew. There were also new issues, different from those of the 1980s: questions about global climate change, loss of biodiversity, etc. which demanded increased precision of estimates and new types of information. Forests could be a source or a sink of global carbon depending on whether there was an increase or decrease in forest biomass; a question closely related to tropical deforestation. Loss of biodiversity and land degradation were other problems for which no reliable assessment methodology or data existed.
These issues called for a new generation of global assessments. There were five main requirements for the technique to be developed to estimate the rate of deforestation:
The database used should be verifiable and the procedures of assessment objective.
The technique should have a statistical basis and provide not only mean values but also their confidence limits (e.g. mean deforestation rate and its standard error).
The procedure must provide consistent and comparable estimates over time, because deforestation is a dynamic process.
The approach must address causes and impacts of deforestation, as these have become important issues in view of global concern about the possible effects of deforestation and forest degradation on the CO2 cycle, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, etc.
The methodology must be easily transferable to member countries. This would contribute to the development of sound programmes for national forest resources assessment from which the global assessments could benefit.
As is clear from the above, the assessment was expected to be implemented on a statistically sound basis, not only to provide reliable results but also to provide a time-series of estimates, of known precision, and to contribute to knowledge about the process of deforestation. It may be noted that consistency and continuity of assessment have implications for continuity of institutions at the global and national levels.
Figure 1 schematically presents the development and immediate objectives with associated outputs of the assessment.
Objectives and outputs of the Forest Resources Assessment 1990
The development goals of the Forest Resources Assessment 1990 were to:
assist member countries and the world community in reviewing policies, promoting cooperation and taking appropriate action for conservation, development and management of tropical forest resources;
support studies of a regional and international nature requiring country forest resource information in a common and harmonised format;
develop national capabilities for periodic assessment and monitoring of forest resources.
The immediate objectives were to:
make an assessment of the forest resources of the tropical countries for the reference year 1990, and estimate the changes that have taken place during 1981 to 1990;
prepare vegetation and ecofloristic zone maps, and integrate these with socio-economic data, the FAO soil map and the protected area map of IUCN/WCMC in the form of a GIS;
study the environmental impact of deforestation and forest degradation in the tropics;
disseminate the database and the methodology of assessment to the national and international institutions.
Objectives (i) and (ii) concern the building of an information base; objective (iii) concerns the building of a knowledge base on deforestation; and objective (iv) concerns the building of an national institution base for present and future forest resources assessment.
The Eighth Session of the Committee on Forestry (COFO) held in Rome, 21–25 April 1986, recommended the “strengthening of FAO's programme of collection, evaluation and dissemination of information related to forest resources and resource development” (paragraph 14) and “updating of information on tropical deforestation in order to provide reliable baseline data” (paragraph 45). These recommendations were endorsed by the FAO Council at the Nineteenth Session in Rome, November 1986.
The preparations for the new assessment were initiated by FAO Forestry Department in 1987. The FAO/ECE/Finland “Ad Hoc Meeting on World Forest Resources Assessment” was held at Kotka, Finland, October 1987. Forty experts took part in the meeting: 20 from developing, and 20 from developed countries, representing a cross-section of expertise. Four major areas for assessment were identified by the group including the need for:
estimation of the current state of forest cover and its rates of change;
estimation of volume and biomass;
information on forest management, logging, forest plantations, etc. and
establishment of a GIS database to assess environmental impacts and service functions of forests.
The FAO Forestry Department, responding to the recommendations of its statutory bodies, prepared an umbrella document for implementing the new round of global forest resource assessment to update the 1980 assessment and submitted part of it to donors for funding consideration. The proposal consisted of three components, including assessments of: (i) the tropical zone; (ii) the subtropical zone; and finally (iii) a global synthesis. The data for the temperate and boreal forests were to be provided by the FAO/ECE Agriculture and Timber Division, Geneva. The data for the tropical and subtropical components were to be provided by FAO Forestry Department, Rome.
The tropical component of the Forest Resources Assessment 1990 Project (hereafter also called the Project) became operational on 1 March 1989 with the initial funding from Sweden, the Netherlands and France. Two special studies were subsequently added to this, namely application of remote sensing funded by Finland and of GIS funded by Switzerland. Sweden provided a second contribution to support research, training and technology transfer, the United States of America provided support for GIS and training and Italy provided support for strengthening the database of the IGADD subregion of Africa.
Besides the multi-donor trust funds, support was provided through the Associate Professional Officer programme by the governments of Belgium (2 officers), Germany (1), the Netherlands (1), Sweden (2) and the United States of America (1).
Twinning arrangements were made with a number of universities and research institutions in the developing and developed countries to undertake cooperative research work. Close contacts were established and maintained with the scientific community, particularly with the International Union for Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) Subject Group on Forest Inventory and the Group on Biometrics.
For collection of data and remote sensing studies, regional/subregional centres were identified where experienced inventory specialists existed. With their cooperation regional training workshops in the Asia, Africa and Latin America regions were implemented.
The governments of sixty tropical countries established national focal points for contact and information exchange. Thus, an excellent base was built for future global assessments.
An expert consultation was organised in May 1990, at which 12 experts were invited to review various technical and policy issues related to the ongoing forest resource assessment. The consultation provided valuable guidance to the Project.
An in-depth review of the Project and the follow-up phase was carried out during 4–15 April 1992 in consultation with the donors. The review provided an independent evaluation of the Project's objectives, achievements and proposed follow-up.
The present round of assessment was completed on 31 October 1992 and country briefs were sent to concerned member governments for comment, to which most of the countries responded. The comments were reviewed and suitably incorporated into the report. Finally, the Project's findings were presented to the 11th Session of COFO held in Rome, 8–12 March 1993. The Committee “welcomed the report of the Forest Resources Assessment 1990 Project”. It recognised the “fundamental importance of the continuous forest resources assessment” and of “country capacity building”, to provide the information for the formulation, implementation and review of the effects of plans and strategies for conservation and development of forest resources at national and international levels.