5.5 Forests in sustainable development: future perspectives

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Consideration of the role of the forest in sustainable development to 2010 and beyond involves three main areas. The forests have a productive role contributing directly to the economy and the material well-being of people; there are competing demands for land occupied by forests for growing food and for human settlements and infrastructure development; and the forests and the use of their products relate intricately to the environment. Those considerations are dealt with in turn.

Demand for forest products in the economy

The demand for the products of the forest will continue to increase. Wood and biomass have a significant role in energy supply both for rural communities and as a renewable energy source in total energy supply. Forest and tree biomass have advantages in supplying these energy needs because of their location near rural populations and because they compensate for the CO2 released in burning through its sequestration in the regrowth process. Growth of consumption of forest products is an essential component in the expansion of economies and particularly in increasing the material well-being of people in developing countries. Significant expansion of demand is projected to the year 2010. Thus the future supply of wood and forest products other than wood, the development of an industry to manufacture forest products and the development of trade in these products are essential components of strategies to promote sustainable development.

Conversion of forest land

The necessary expansion of agriculture in the developing countries to meet the demand for food and to provide employment and incomes to the rural population will involve a net increase in the area of land in agricultural use (see Chapter 4). Part of this extension will be met by conversion of land from forestry use. Conversion of land to other uses such as reservoirs may involve an additional million hectares of forest land per year.

The current rate of tropical zone deforestation of about 15 million ha per year is much higher than what would have been required under sound management of the agricultural expansion process. For the future, much greater efforts are required to increase the efficiency of converting land to other uses, e.g. the undertaking of adequate assessments of the productive potential of land, identification of appropriate technology for agriculture and support to the communities involved to ensure access to the essential inputs for efficient land use. In addition, measures to ensure continued adequate soil and water conservation, including the appropriate use of tree planting in agrosilvipastoral activities must play an important role in managing the process of forest land transfer to other uses.

The efficient use of limited forest and non-forest land resources requires a sound understanding of the productive potential of the land and of the technical options for forestry and agriculture. This information must be available and usable by the communities that effectively make the decisions on land use. These communities must be involved in the planning involving changes in land use and must have security that the benefits will be shared equitably.

Environmental demands on forests

At the same time as demands for the products of the forest and for alternative uses of forest land are increasing, also demands for a more secure environment with respect to soil conservation, the water supply, the protection from flooding, and the conservation of the remaining heritage of biological diversity, are increasing. There is an overall demand for stabilization of, or increase in, living biomass through conservation, renewal and extension of forest.

Meeting these demands requires an effective identification of forests that are more important for soil and water conservation and of forests more important for the conservation of species diversity and ecosystems. Expected action includes the expansion of protected areas, in situ and ex situ conservation of genetic resources, extension of sustainable management of existing forest and watersheds, reforestation and afforestation in both developed and developing countries and greening of wasteland, degraded forest and surplus land.

The impact on forests of atmospheric pollution may be contained by measures to control the level of noxious industrial emissions in the atmosphere. However, the absolute consumption of chemicals and fuels is expected to increase, and therefore also the risk of atmospheric pollution in established or new forms. Projections of world energy consumption leave no doubt that the emission of greenhouse gases will be difficult to contain at current levels and that such emissions are most likely to increase. The impact of atmospheric pollution on the climate and in turn on forests requires further research.

Summing up

Concluding, the perspective for forestry development to the year 2010 is one of intensifying competition for the goods and services of the forest and for the use of forest land. The demand for the products of the forest will continue to grow with growing populations and economies. In the developing countries, part of the forest land must be transferred to agriculture. The increasing scarcity of undisturbed forests makes the need to conserve forests in their service functions relating to soil, water, ecosystems, genetic diversity and the composition of the atmosphere more urgent.

As noted earlier, a major part of the tropical deforestation is due to the pressures for expansion of agriculture, grazing and fuelwood gathering, many of them originating in the growth of poor rural populations. Reducing such pressures depends above all on more general economic and social development that would provide alternative income-earning opportunities as well as contribute to reduce the rate of population growth. However, if development can reduce the pressures emanating from rural poverty, it also generates increased demands for both the products of the forest and food, in particular livestock products. These demands should be met by adequate technological progress to prevent further unsustainable harvesting and expansion of farming. Thus, efficient forest management and provision of incentives for conservation are an essential part of policies to check deforestation even when, and perhaps particularly when, poverty-reducing development occurs.

On the positive side, increasing incomes tend to upgrade concerns regarding nature conservation in people's priorities and preferences. They also provide the means to pursue this objective. However, this stage is likely to be reached at advanced levels of per caput income rather than at the early phase of income growth and poverty reduction.

The urgent areas for action to contain the adverse effects on the forest include the adoption of improved technology to secure high productivity from both agricultural and forest use of land combined with a careful assessment of land potential to permit allocation to the best use. Investments in research, training and dissemination of the necessary technology are required to secure its optimum use as are the adjustments of policy and planning to support its implementation. A fundamental requirement is the awareness, commitment and full participation of the de facto decision-makers, namely the populations and communities involved in forests and neighbouring agriculture.

There is increasing awareness and international commitment to address these issues, which finds its expression in the Tropical Forests Action Programme, the adoption of Agenda 21 and the Forestry Principles by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the guidelines for sustainable management of tropical forests of the International Tropical Timber Organization. It has to be recognized that an effective implementation of these plans and principles requires a major effort to reach the localities where the forests are and where effective decisions are made.

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