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Latin America and the Caribbean1,2

1 The highlights for Latin America and the Caribbean cover all countries listed In South America, the Caribbean and Central America. Mexico is covered in the North American highlights startihg on page 156.

2 Unless otherwise stated, all data on forest cover and forest products cited are from FAO databases: Forest Resources Assessment and the FAO Yearbook of Forest Products.

Forest resources

Table 1 gives estimates of forest cover in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1995. At that time forest covered 895 million ha, accounting for half of the total land area in the region and about one-quarter of the forest area of the world.

Almost all (95 percent) of the natural forests in the region are tropical (852 million ha), located in Central America, the Caribbean and tropical South America. The remaining resources, covering some 43 million ha, are found in temperate South America, mainly in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

The natural forest cover continues to decrease in all countries due to: clearance for agriculture and stockfarming; construction of roads, dams and other infrastructure; and mining. A total of 5.3 million ha of forest was lost per year over the period 1990 to 1995. The highest average annual deforestation rate occurred in Central America (2.2 percent) followed by the Caribbean (1.7 percent). Deforestation was lowest in the temperate countries of the region. Causes of forest degradation include fire, pest infestation and extraction of timber and fuelwood.

Forest fires are a major cause of forest degradation, especially in the arid and semi arid zone. They usually arise in association with the clearing of land for agriculture.

There are no major problems of pests and diseases: in natural forests excepted in isolated cases of bark beetle attacks on natural stands of pine. However, the situation is very different in forest plantations where eucalyptus and pine stands have been infested by ants, moths and other pests. This has led some countries to strengthen programmes for control of forest pests and diseases and to carry out research on the diversification of plantation species.

Table 1
Forest area, 1995; and change, 1990-95


number of countries

land area

forest cover (1995)

annual change (1990-95)

thousand ha

thousand ha

percent of land area

thousand ha


Central America


51 073

19 631






22 859

4 425




tropical South America


1 385 678

827 946


-4 655


tropical total


1 459 610

852 002


-5 148


temperate South America


366 030

42 648






1 825 640

894 650


-5 267


The most recent complete set of data on forest plantations is from 1990. The majority of plantations are found in Brazil (4.90 million ha), Chile (1.02 million ha), Argentina (0.55 million ha), Uruguay (0.16 million ha), and Cuba (0.25 million ha). Together these account for 90 percent of the region's plantations. Among the regions, Latin America and the Caribbean account for 20 percent of the world's tropical forest plantations.

The main species used for reforestation are eucalyptus and pine. Willow, gmelina, teak and mahogany are also planted, though to a lesser extent.

Forest resources development and conservation

The forest resources of the region are subject to competing pressures. They a source of wood and non-wood products for national use and export. Forest land in many places is sought for agricultural expansion. In addition, forests provide watershed protection and a habitat to the region's rich biological resources, and they are a home to a number of forest-dwelling indigenous peoples.

Large population groups are heavily dependent on the forests for food, particularly in tropical South America. Change to the forest therefore affects directly - sometimes dramatically - their quality of life and their social and cultural customs. Concern over deforestation and its ecological, social and economic repercussions has led to increased efforts in conservation and improved forest management. National economic needs have driven the increase in forest harvesting activities.

Weaknesses in forest management in the region are due to unclear land tenure, lack of information on proper management techniques, and insufficient institutional capacity and technical knowledge. Where management plans have been drawn up, these are frequently geared exclusively towards the production of timber, neglecting any development of non-wood forest products or forest services. Moreover, when forest management plans have been approved by government bodies, these may, in some places, amount to little more in effect than straightforward felling permits because of inadequate capacity to monitor the plans and ensure that they are implemented properly.

There is an increasing tendency to require management plans before authorizing operations in natural forests. If coupled with increased effort to monitor and ensure implementation, this could lead to improved forest management. The introduction of annual felling permits instead of long-term concession agreements should also improve the situation in some countries.

There has been heavy encroachment of forests by rural poor in their search for land for agricultural use. Most of the land in the region is state-owned and, although various land reform systems and settlement schemes have been introduced to transfer public land to the people, in many places no land titles have as yet been transferred. As a result, many people who have settled on forest lands have no clear title.

Agroforestry is being seen as an increasingly important land-use system, particularly in sloping lands and mountain areas. In addition, many countries, acknowledging the social importance of their forests, are making an effort to account for and involve local populations and other interest groups in discussions and decisions related to forest use. Several countries, notably Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Honduras and Peru, have introduced programmes to foster the involvement of rural communities in forestry activities.

Strong internal and external pressures are being exercised on countries with extensive tropical forest cover, to conserve and protect forests and forest ecosystems, and maintain forest-based incomes and means of survival of forest-dependants, local communities and indigenous groups.

The amount of land under some form of conservation and protection has continued to rise, with some 8 percent of the land area now classified as national park or some other category of strict protection. An additional 10 percent is under another form of protection or restricted use status, including national forest. However, there are still many forest ecosystems that are not represented in protected areas, and management is weak in many of them.

Table 2
Forest products in Latin America, 1994



industrial roundwood


wood panels

wood pulp

thousand m3

thousand m3

thousand m3

thousand m3

thousand tonnes

Central America

35 909

2 968

1 762




10 024

1 091




South America

258 192

121 128

26 027

5 068

8 754

Forest products

The production and trade of forest products vary from one country to another. Some, for example, have registered increases in roundwood, fuelwood and industrial products such as pulp, paper and panels. This increase has been sourced mainly from plantations. Sizeable plantation-based forest industries have been established in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

In countries where production and trade are based mainly on raw materials from natural forests, the level has tended to decline because of supply problems. The forests are either remote, depleted or degraded. Moreover, the international trade of products from natural forests may be affected in the future if major importing countries insist on the certification of exported timber. Increasing focus on the protection of endangered species is also affecting production and trade; Brazil, for instance, has placed a ban on the harvesting of mahogany.

Non-wood forest products, such as wild fruits, bushmeat, flora and fauna for domestic, medicinal or industrial use, constitute a permanent and sometimes sole form of cash income, particularly in tropical South America. The gathering of fruit, stalks, leaves and other items, together with their transport, cleaning, storage, packing and processing, also provide employment opportunities.

Forest institutions

Forestry institutions in the region are undergoing legal and organizational changes as a result of structural adjustment programmes, increasing efforts of governments to address sustainable development, and the activities of environmental groups. Trends towards liberalization of the economy, privatization, government decentralization, and downsizing of the public bureaucracies have had direct impacts on forestry institutions. The role of the public sector in research and extension, and in forest industries, has decreased in favour of the contracting of private services and partnerships. Examples of these changes can be observed in Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Chile, among others. Another change in some countries is the establishment of new ministries of the environment which have been given some of the functions previously assigned to forest departments.

The tendency towards a partial disengagement of the state, the delegation of responsibility to regional level, the reduction of public-sector forestry personnel and the emergence of private enterprises has modified the role of forest administrations. To safeguard the rights of rural communities and indigenous people, increasing recognition is given to local organizations and NGOs. The role of these institutions is crucial for counterbalancing the effects of market liberalization at the community level.

At the same time, the need for forest conservation has been placed amongst the priorities of the political agenda in many countries. The Central American countries are developing coordinated actions for promoting adequate policies for the sustainable management of forest resources, the improvement of regional investment in forestry and the establishment of a regional institutional framework. This has led to the creation of the Central American Commission on Environment and Development - a regional institution through which government decisions are implemented. In South America, various sub-regional mechanisms have been established such as the Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation, the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and associations of Andean communities, which have furthered intra-regional cooperation in forestry.

Another positive development in the region is the use of incentives for promoting the establishment of forest plantations. Following the positive experiences of Chile and Brazil, reforestation of up to 40 000 ha per year has been achieved in Uruguay. Recent policy reforms in Guatemala are expected to stimulate the reforestation of thousands of hectares. Most of the countries of the region have some type of incentive programme for reforestation and are developing institutional and administrative systems for improving their efficiency.

The granting of forest concessions to international companies is an emerging issue in countries with important resources. Countries which have granted large concessions or are considering doing so include Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Conservation organizations and governments from developed countries have expressed concern over the possible risks associated with these activities.

At national level the partnership between the government and the private sector is being considered through the region. Increasingly, forestry-related activities such as the management of protected areas, monitoring of resources, training, extension and research, are being contracted to the private sector.

The institutional capacity of forestry needs to be strengthened to enable countries to deal with responsibilities arising from new policies, legal reforms, international commitments, changing demands of national and international markets and, particularly, the need to achieve national forestry objectives and goals. This will require increased national investment in the forestry sector.

Numerous regional and international organizations are cooperating with the forestry sector. These include, FAO, UNDP, UNEP, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Organization of American States (OAS) and ITTO. Also playing their part are the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Centre (CATIE), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the community of donor countries.

Financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, play an important and influential role in developing the region's forestry sector and conserving its natural resources. A well-established network of NGOs and community-based organizations exists in many countries and the NGO sector in the region in general continues to gain in strength.

Forest policy and legislation

Recent changes in national forest policies reflect a broader vision beyond the traditional timber orientation of the past. Policy-makers are increasingly receptive to the notion of sustainability, to the variety of goods and services provided by forests, to interlinkages within the forestry sector and with other sectors, and of the role of forests in the sustainable development of countries and especially rural communities. New mechanisms are being introduced for the compilation of national accounts, the determination of both market and non-market values of forests, and the assessment of impacts of policies external to the forestry sector. Economic incentives are generally aiming to provide an economic base that will make sustainable forest management both attractive and profitable.

There has been intense debate in the region with respect to natural forest management and use reflecting the various social, environmental and economic roles that forests play. Many countries have revised and updated their forestry legislation and passed new laws and regulations. In other countries, legislative proposals are under discussion in their respective legislatures.

At the same time, efforts are being made to ensure participation of farmer and user groups in decision making and resource conservation and management and to ensure broader access to resources. These measures include recognition of traditional rights and communal stewardship of forest resources and efforts to help local people gain greater financial benefit from these resources. Increased recognition is being given to local organizations and NGOs.

New initiatives affecting the forestry sector

The Tropical Forests Action Programme (TFAP) -- and the National Forestry Action Programme (NFAP) - has been an important mechanism for the promotion of forestry planning in the region and revision of forest policies and strategies. It has spurred most countries to appraise the role of the forestry sector in terms of national development, and to identify and formulate results-oriented projects to be financed nationally or externally funded. National plans have been prepared in 32 countries of the region.

There have also been important initiatives, in follow-up to the proposals of Agenda 21 of UNCED, related to the management of fragile ecosystems to control desertification and drought, and the use of mountain areas. Many countries have signed the Convention to Combat Desertification. National plans to combat desertification are either under way or in the pipeline in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Many countries are also engaging in actions for the sustainable development of mountain areas.

The region's countries are involved in intergovernmental initiatives to establish criteria and indicators for sustainable management for Amazonian forests (the Tarapoto Proposal), for Central America (the Central American/Lepaterique Process), and for temperate and boreal forests (Montreal Process).

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