0810-B1

The Multiple Functions of Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development and the Challenge of their Management

Thomas Hofer[1] and Pier Carlo Zingari


Abstract

Forests are an integral part of mountain ecosystems and significantly contribute to their key characteristics as water towers of the earth, repositories of biological diversity, target areas for recreation, and hubs of cultural identity and heritage. In the past, mountain forests have not received much attention. Today, the importance of forests to sustainable mountain development is increasingly being recognized. Mountain forests are important in watershed management and risk mitigation, as well as biodiversity and food security. They significantly contribute to air quality. They provide fuelwood and timber for local, as well as non-local users. In many mountain areas, forests are an integral part of complex land-use systems. Finally, mountain forests are part of cultural landscapes in mountains and attract many tourists in search of recreation. The paper looks at the multiple functions of mountain forests.

Mountain forests need to be managed as an integral part of complex land-use systems, watersheds, and mountain ecosystems as a whole. Forests with their multiple functions need to be considered in all efforts related to sustainable mountain development. Accordingly, the management of mountain forests needs to follow integrated and multi-sectoral approaches. Unfortunately, forest policies often represent downstream interests at the expense of upstream needs. A new approach is required in which mountain forest policy is embedded in an overall concept of mountain development, within which local communities are accepted as key stakeholders. Mechanisms need to be included that allow for the compensation of local owners and users for activities that maintain the specific roles of mountain forests for the benefit of society at large, such as watershed conservation, conservation of biodiversity, protection from natural hazards and recreation. The paper considers some key challenges in the management of mountain forests.


Forests: an integral part of mountain ecosystems

Mountains are complex and highly diversified ecosystems. Forests are an integral part of these ecosystems and significantly contribute to their key characteristics as water towers of the earth, repositories of biological diversity, target areas for recreation, and hub of cultural identity and heritage. With over 9 million km2, mountain forests represent 28% of the worlds closed forest area (FAO, 2002). The most complete data set on mountain forests has been compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and is summarised in table 1 (Kapos & al. 2000).

Table 1 - Mountain forest area in the world (summarised from Kapos & al. 2000).

Mountain forest types

Total area in km2 (%)

Dominant regions

Tropical and subtropical moist mountain forests

2 321 890 (24)

Tropical Andes, Central America, East Africa and Madagascar, South-East Asia

Tropical and subtropical dry mountain forests

551 752 (6)

Southern Africa, India

Temperate and boreal evergreen needleleaf mountain forests

2 890 544 (30)

North-America, Europe, Central Asia, Himalaya

Temperate and boreal deciduous needleleaf mountain forests

1 376 958 (15)

Central Asia, North-East Asia

Temperate and boreal broadleaf and mixed mountain forests

2 338 046 (25)

North America, Southern Andes, Europe, Himalaya, East Asia

Total

9 479 190 (100)


In many countries of the temperate regions, mountain forests are stable or even extending in area, expanding in volume, increasing in growth rate, and growing older. These trends are mainly due to the high cost of silviculture in remote areas and the depopulation of mountain areas (European Commission 2002; European Observatory of Mountain Forests 2000). In tropical areas, the trends are opposite: mountain regions are usually those where the rate of loss of forest cover is the highest.

In the past, mountain forests did not get much attention. Today, the importance of forests to sustainable mountain development is increasingly being recognized (see box 1). The International Year of Mountains 2002 and the International Year of Freshwater 2003 are providing excellent opportunities to rise awareness about the global importance of resources in mountain areas, of forests in particular. This paper provides an overview of the various functions of mountain forests and discusses some important challenges related to their management.

Box 1: Selection of recent initiatives related to mountain forests

There are six publications which deal with mountain forests in a very comprehensive way:

- In the book on "Mountains of the world", edited by Proff. Messerli and Ives, Lawrence Hamilton and colleagues wrote a comprehensive report about mountain forests and forestry (Hamilton et al., 1997).

- In 1999, the Mountain Forum organised an electronic conference on "Mountain People, Forests and Trees: Strategies for Balancing Local Management and Outside Interest" (Butt and Price, 2000), in which more than 850 stakeholders and interested individuals from around the world participated.

- The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Centre for Development and Environment of the University of Berne prepared a publication for the 2000 spring session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (Mountain Agenda, 2000) which provides an excellent overview about the key issues in mountain forestry, discusses local and regional experiences from all over the world and concludes with policy recommendations.

- A State of Knowledge Report on Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development was produced in association with IUFRO, the International Union of Forestry Research Organisations (Price and Butt, 2000).

- A White Book was published within the framework of Resolution S4 of the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (European Observatory of Mountain Forests, 2000). It describes the forestry situation in European mountains, presents options, and proposes ways to promote the sustainable management of mountain forests.

- The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation published a CD which compares Forest Development in the Swiss Alps with forest development in mountain areas of developing countries (Küchli and Stuber, 2000).

As a major event in the International year of Mountains, the 4th International Consultation on "Mountain Forests: Lessons Learned, Societal Challenges, and a Vision Beyond 2002" was held in Navarra, Spain, in June 2002.

In order to further education related to mountain forests, the University of Vienna’s Soil Science Institute (BOKU) has established a post-graduate course in mountain forestry in 2002. This newly established programme provides academic training to highly qualified students and professionals from all over the world who wish to specialize in Mountain Forestry. One of the key objectives of the course is to strengthen interdisciplinary approaches in mountain forestry.

The multiple functions of mountain forests

Watershed functions

Mountain forests are a key component of integrated watershed management. They contribute to soil erosion control and to the reduction of the sediment concentration downstream. In addition to keeping the soils in place, mountain forests and trees contribute to the regeneration of soils. Due to their considerable infiltration capacity, forests can store high rainfall quantities and reduce runoff rates. Accordingly, mountain forests contribute to the regulation of river flows, to the reduction of storm flow peaks (at least at the small scale) and to water quality. However, the role of mountain forests in the conservation and sustainable use of water resources is still an issue of discussion and debate. According to Hamilton (1987), a mountain forest only guarantees soil and water conservation if intact canopy layers or litter are available. It is not so much the forest cover, but the forest quality that is decisive for the protective role of a mountain forest.

Risk mitigation

Mountain forests are the most effective, least expensive, most aesthetic, and most environmentally-friendly protectors against risks such as local floods, avalanches, rock falls and landslides. The ability of a mountain forest to fulfil protective functions depends on its position on a mountain slope, its type and its condition (structure, density, health, mixture of species and ages). To be resilient to natural hazards, a forest should be composed of trees of different heights, ages and species (Mountain Agenda, 2000). However, mountain forests should not be considered a panacea against risks: forest cover in a mountainous watershed only provides flood and landslide protection to near downstream dwellers in the case of normal rainfall events. In extreme events, floods and deep-rooted landslides will occur independently of the availability or absence of forest cover in the respective watershed. Furthermore, recent research provides evidence that mountain forests, for example in the Himalayas, do not protect against large floods in the floodplains far downstream, such as for example in Bangladesh (Hofer and Messerli, 2003).

Biodiversity and food security

Mountain forests typically have higher biodiversity per unit area than adjacent lowland areas, and endemism is often remarkable (Mountain Agenda, 2000). Grabherr (2000) identifies mountains as ‘biodiversity hot spots’ and ‘evolutionary engines’ because of the share of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The high biodiversity of mountain areas also significantly contributes to food security: many of the world-wide cultivated plants such as potatoes and cereals originate in mountain areas including forests. Also, mountain forests host a large number of non-wood forest products such as berries, herbs, mushrooms and medicinal plants, and offer opportunities such as hunting, fishing, honey production which are often a key element in the local food security and economy.

Air quality

Mountain regions are less suited for intensive industrial or agricultural activities than the plains and therefore constitute less man-influenced environments. If not affected by long distance pollutants, as it has been the case in Central Europe, air quality in mountains is often higher than in lowlands. Trees and forests significantly contribute to clean air in mountains: there is research evidence from Europe that the carbon stocking capacity of mountain coniferous forests reaches three times the average of forests, i.e. 157 tons C per ha against 53.2 (European Forest Institute 2000).

Fuelwood and timber

Particularly in developing countries, wood is the main fuel source for cooking and heating for the mountain people as well as for those in nearby settlements in the foothills and plains. Globally, quantitative information about timber production in mountain forests is limited. However, case studies of mountain communities provide insights into the importance of timber and related wood products within local economies (Gregersen, 2000; Soudan & Zingari 2000). Due mainly to topographic factors, the economic potential of silviculture and logging in mountains is rather limited: forest harvesting is difficult and expensive and the access to markets is in many cases restricted. The selection of high commercial value species is often encouraged which leads to forest degradation or even deforestation.

In many industrialised countries, mountain forests are underexploited largely because oil and hydroelectricity have replaced fuelwood as a source of energy, and timber is being substituted with other construction materials. As a result, the vitality of mountain forests is reduced and their protective function impaired. In developing countries, many forests are overexploited because of high demands for fuelwood and agricultural land, unsustainable forest practices and the excessive granting of timber concessions.

Land use

In many mountain regions, forests are an integral part of complex land use systems and are included in the nutrient cycles. Forest litter is carried to the agricultural fields and used as organic matter for the soils. Cattle, particularly sheep or goats, are brought into the forests for grazing.

Culture, tourism and recreation

Mountain forests are part of a cultural landscape that contribute to shape and maintain the identities of people, communities, villages and entire cultural groups (Butt and Price, 2000). In many regions, mountain forests also enshrine sacred groves and trees. In many parts of the world, mountains are key tourism destinations. Mountain forests add to the scenic beauty of landscapes, national parks and protected areas of which a high proportion is located in mountain areas. Hiking in mountain forests is very relaxing and peaceful. Mountain forests and their wildlife also offer important educational opportunities for children to observe nature. Due to all these reasons mountain forests are experiencing growing levels of recreational use.

The management of mountain forests: some key challenges

Involvement of local communities

Mountain forests are a key resource. They need to be managed as an integral part of complex land use systems, watersheds, and mountain ecosystems as a whole. Forests with their multiple functions as well as with their downstream implications and benefits need to be considered in all efforts related to sustainable mountain development. Accordingly, the management of mountain forests needs to follow integrated and multi-sectoral approaches. The involvement of local communities is essential. Unfortunately this is not yet a reality in many areas: the marginalization of mountain communities and the lack of political commitments by central governments make that highland people typically suffer from insecure rights to ownership and access to use, and they have limited control over their resources including forests (Pratt & Preston 1998). However, there are a number of examples, particularly in Europe, where community forestry has been practiced for centuries, creating employment and generating income (see box 2). It is very promising to see that today community forestry is implemented successfully in mountain areas of many developing countries as well (see box 3).

Box 2: Community forestry: experience from Italy

"Community forestry has a long tradition in Italy, going back to the beginning of the past millennium. Although social and economic evolution and progress have resulted in modifications in traditional collective land ownership and management, several examples of such cooperation are still present and active, especially in the central Italian Alps. The Magnifica Communità di Fiemme is an example of effective and modern management of common land for the benefit of a forest-dependent community...... The so-called Privilegio Enriciano of 1314 gave the Homines Vallis Flemarum (the inhabitants of Fiemme) direct common ownership of their lands, forests and pastures, as well as all the related rights of land use, including wood harvesting, use of pasture, hunting and fishing. The Bishop-Prince also confirmed that ‘all the land, forest and pastures had been common property of the people of Fiemme for more than two hundred years’. Written records indicate that in 1270 the assembly of the Homines Vallis Flemarum declared that the forests of the valley were reserved for the needs of the church, for building and for the general needs of the valley population. This is not only an affirmation of the rights of ownership, but at the same time a clear indication of the importance of the forest for the valley inhabitants at that time. Indeed, the forest constituted a basic element in the local economy, providing timber for house building, maintenance and repair and fuelwood that was needed in vast quantities because of the cold climate. It also provided a fundamental source of labour and income for the poor mountain dwellers...History, tradition, forestry and economy all have their place in the Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme which, for centuries, has carefully managed its forests for the welfare of the vicini and has preserved and improved its common heritage for future generations.

(source: Morandini, 1996)


Box 3: Community forestry: experience from Nepal

Forest management in Nepal has been changed from one system to another as time passed. Community Forestry Program, which has completed more than two decades, is a good example in this regard. The program is being appreciated by the communities within and outside of the country, as the real users have started managing the forest effectively. The program has become very successful in the hilly districts. The program has achieved remarkably on sustainability, and self-reliance. A big number of Forest User Groups have been formed and accordingly thousands of hectares of forests have been handed over to approx. 1.2 million households.

Despite being a successful program it is still considered as imperfect, unless it supports livelihood of women and underprivileged groups. It still needs a lot of efforts from all stakeholders for the sustainability.

(Source: Shrestha and Shrestha, 2002)

Local and non-local users

The appropriate management of mountain forests is not only beneficial for the local communities, but also for many non-local users. The proposal for action on mountain forests made at the 4th International Consultation on Mountain Forests (see box 1) states that "alliances, coalitions, partnerships, agreements and contracts on forest conservation and management between local and non-local actors help sharing benefits at all levels" (European Observatory of Mountain Forests 2002). Because of their beneficial effects on upland and lowland areas, mountain forests are also an asset in the relationships between urban and rural areas.

Forest policy

In the national and international debates an increasing recognition of the importance of mountain forest ecosystems is needed. National authorities are usually well aware of the important role that mountain forests play in the development of downstream areas (water for urban centres, hydropower, irrigation; protection of traffic routes; recreation). Forest policies often represent these downstream interests, addressing the demands of urbanised, industrialised, and consumer-oriented development, at the expense of the upstream interests (Mountain Agenda, 2000). The role of mountain forests in supporting the livelihood of mountain people is overlooked or ignored when downstream interests come into play, especially where minority groups are concerned. A new approach is needed in which mountain forest policy is embedded in an overall concept of mountain development, within which local communities are accepted as key stakeholders. Mechanisms need to be included which allow to compensate local owners and users for activities that maintain the specific roles of mountain forests for the benefit of society at large such as watershed conservation, conservation of biodiversity, protection from natural hazards and recreation.

The fate of mountain forests often depends much more on government policies and incentives in non forestry sectors, such as agriculture, energy and trade. For example, mountain forests in Europe are presently recovering due to less pressure from grazing, reduced air pollution, and a general improvement in the rural mountain economy due to tourism and other activities.

Knowledge

To safeguard mountain forests and assure their multiple contributions, forest policy and practices need to adopt approaches that better integrate their productive, protective, social and cultural functions. To achieve this, knowledge needs to be improved about the roles forests play in mountain ecosystems and about their benefits, including those that reach beyond mountain areas. Effective watershed management provides a framework where the role of forests in the protection of uplands and in the sustainable use and conservation of lowlands resources are better understood. Finally, opportunities for capacity building and training related to the management, conservation and development of mountain forests need to be expanded. A very positive initiative in this direction is the new post-graduate course on mountain forestry in Vienna (see box 1).

References

BUTT, N., PRICE, M (eds), 2000: Mountain people, forests and trees: strategies for balancing local management and outside interests. Synthesis of an electronic conference of the Mountain Forum, April 12-May 14, 1999. The Mountain Institute and the Mountain Forum,, Harrisonburg, 56pp.

European Forest Institute, 2000, Carbon Sequestration in Forests. EFI News, 1(8): 5-7

European Commission, 2002, COST, Activity Report 2001. Edited by P.Hyttinen, G.Siegel, J.Väyrynen, Luxembourg, 141 p.

European Observatory of Mountain Forests, 2000, White Book 2000 on Mountain Forests in Europe, European Union DG Agriculture and EOMF, Saint Jean d’Arvey, 65 p.

European Observatory of Mountain Forests, 2002, International Consultation on Mountain Forests, Pamplona, Navarra, Spain, 23-25 June, 2003.

FAO, 2002 - Forest Resource Assessment, Rome

Grabherr G., 2000, Biodiversity in mountain forests, in Price M.F. and Butt N. (eds.), Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development. A State of Knowledge Report. IUFRO Research Series N°5, Cabi Publishing, Wallingford, 590 p.

Gregersen H.M., 2000, Income from mountain timber and wood products, in Price M.F. and Butt N. (eds.), Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development. A State of Knowledge Report. IUFRO Research Series N°5, Cabi Publishing, Wallingford, 590 p.

Hofer, T., Messerli, B., 2003 (in press): floods in Bangladesh. History, dynamics and rethinking the role for the Himalayas. UNU Press, Tokyo

Kapos V., Rhind J., Edwards M., Price M.F., Ravilious C., 2000, Developing a map of the world’s mountain forests in Price M.F. and Butt N. (eds.), Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development. A State of Knowledge Report. IUFRO Research Series N°5, Cabi Publishing, Wallingford, 590 p.

Küchli Ch., Stuber M., 2000, Forest Development in the Swiss Alps: Exchanging Experience with Mountain Regions in the South, CD by the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, Bern.

Hamilton, L. 1987. What are the impacts of Himalayan deforestation on the Ganges-Brahmaputra lowlands and delta? Assumptions and facts, Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 7, No. 3: 256-263.

Hamilton, L.S., Gilmour, D.A., Cassels, D.S., 1997: Montane Forests and Forestry. In: Messerli B., Yves J.D. (ed.), 1997, Mountains of the world - global priority. Parthenon Publishing Group, New York and London: 281-311.

Morandini, R., 1996: A modern forest-dependent the Magnifica Communità di Fiemme in Italy. Unasylva 47 (3): 47-52. Rome

Mountain Agenda, 2000: Mountain forests and sustainable development. Prepared for the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and its 2000 Spring Session. University of Berne, Institute of Geography. 42 pp

Pratt D.J., Preston L., 1998, The economics of mountain resource flow, Unasylva 49(4) 31-38, Rome

PRICE, M., BUTT, N. (eds), 2000: Forests in sustainable mountain development - a state of knowledge report. IUFRO Research Series 5. CABI Publishing. 590 pp.

Shrestha, K.B., Shrestha, R.B., 2002: Experiences of over 25 years in Community Forestry. Report on the Pokhara Seminar, held March 27-28, 2002, 7pp

Soudan J., Zingari P.C., 2000, Mountain Forests and Employment in Savoy, France. Mountain Research and Development 20(2) 132-135


[1] FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, I-00100 Rome, Italy. Tel: +39.06 57 05 31 91; Fax +39.06 57 05 51 37; Email: Thomas.Hofer@fao.org