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Forestry in a sandy world

B. Ben Salem and Talat M. Eren

B. BEN SALEM is responsible for arid and semi-arid zone forestry matters and TALAT M. EREN IS Chief of the Forest and Wild-lands Conservation Branch in the FAO Forestry Department.

The creation of forestry policies and practices that suit the ecological conditions and support the agricultural needs of this arid region are among the major concerns of the UN Economic Commission for West Asia. In fact, many localities possess the conditions for improving wood resources or establishing tree plantations.

In considering the role of forestry in overall rural development certain questions arise: Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it economical? At the local level answers to these questions will, of course, vary but almost without exception every locality or province possesses some soils and drainage conditions which can mane it possible to improve the productivity of woody resources and establish tree plantations for the benefit of its people. The need for exploring the possibilities offered forestry at the regional level of the countries belonging to the UN Economic Commission for Western Asia rests on three premises

1. Woody vegetation and perennial vegetation in an arid environment are those which make the best use of the soil and climate. The strongest among them are also those which adapt best, unlike annual plants. Their vegetation does not depend, for their growth, on the rain starting within two weeks of a certain date, they cover the soil better and last longer. Their roots help to deepen and improve the soil, the shade they provide facilitates metabolism and they give to plants less endowed by nature some of the benefits of the soils protection which they themselves enjoy. Whether natural or introduced, perennial woody plants are more profitable, since they yield a whole range of products - fodder, wood, minor products and even food for people. These constitute continuing functions in the arid zones, essential for the maintenance of agriculture and also for the development of a rural economy.

2. Growing human populations and aspirations for a better life make it imperative that national resources offering development and utilization possibilities be explored. Of the total land area (455.7 million ha) of the region, only approximately 30 percent represent arable land, permanent pastures and forest and woodland. Much of the remaining 70 percent (331 million ha) is desert or marginal lands. Forest and woodland represent approximately 1.7 percent of the total land area. The growing needs of man for food and fibre can be met through increased productivity per unit of productive area, or through the development and utilization of new land resources. In this context forestry has a major role to play, both in improving agricultural production and in helping overcome constraints to other land resources (water regulation, climatic amelioration, soil stabilization, etc.).

3. In order to be profitable any agricultural production effort in these dry tracts should lead to increased and sustained productivity in the long run. Under a fluctuating annual precipitation, the recurrence of droughts and some cases of flooding, this cannot be achieved without conservation. It is this tendency toward sustained productivity that really justifies the need for greater and more concerted efforts at the local, sub-regional and regional levels. This should be done first, to arrest the downgrading of productive land, next, to arrest the process of degradation and last, to rehabilitate and restore those areas lost to productive use.

Such considerations regarding the role of forestry, trees and shrub planting do not take into account wood production as a primary objective, except as a by-product of shelterbelts or as a soil stabilization measure. Rather, the role of forest trees, shrubs and forestry activities in the dry part of the region should be regarded as a means of protecting annual crops and plants, as a deterrent to erosion and as a method for restoring and improving soil fertility. In an arid environment this is a basic means of fostering agricultural and animal products, reducing recurrent drought damage and improving the rural economy. But while considerable progress was made in agricultural and forestry development in the wetter regions, little or no attention has been given to forestry and to the use of desert trees and shrubs to support dry-land agriculture. Low productivity of dry-land farming, coupled with fluctuations in yield due to erratic rainfall, tends to discourage investments and the deployment of scientific inputs.

PREPARING TERRACES FOR CEDARS IN LEBANON where the role of forestry is to preserve the land for agriculture

The argument for giving priority to the allocation of limited funds to the more intensive type of agriculture (irrigation included) may seem to be justified in economic terms. But this policy, wherever it was adopted, has set in motion a vicious circle: the lack or scarcity of financial and technological investment perpetuates, on dry land, inferior production and waste of resources,

Desertification already constitutes a major hazard to the region. The declining agricultural productivity and irreversible loss of natural resources are economic losses that will be paid for, sooner or later, by society as a whole if nothing is done to arrest this land degradation.

Although forests and woodlands cover only 1.7 percent of the land in part of the world, forestry has a major role to play. It is basic support for water regulation, climatic improvement and soil stabilization.

Expensive tree plantations should be compared with indigenous vegetation. Native small shrubs and bushes can be managed for cheap soil and water protection and non-wood products such as honey, pharmaceutical extracts and fodder.

Forestry potentials

If analysed and examined in terns of tree planting or management of existing forests for wood production, forestry potentials in the ECWA region are limited, except in countries where water and land are available (Syria, Iraq). But in the absence of water for irrigation forestry planting has sub-marginal possibilities. If forest plantations and existing forests are integrated with agriculture and animal husbandry, the prospects look better. With further emphasis on conservation and utilization of ligneous vegetation, soil and water resources, it is possible to improve development potential further. By exploiting non-wood products of commercial value, and wildlife for tourism (hunting and game viewing), the prospect should be even more profitable.

Thus the problem is how to integrate within the same ecological zone possible land uses such as agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry. Naturally, such integration must be based on ecological principles and harmonized with general development on a national scale.

In the true desert zones, only extensive stock-raising areas of a nomadic type based on the use of wildlife and, in exceptional rainy years, on domestic animals are possible. But in other zones, throughout the ECWA region, there are many more policy alternatives.

In the arid zone (all the countries of the region), management options are generally confined to native pastures, extensive animal husbandry, production of ligneous material, gums, resins and wildlife, and carried out under a silvo-pastoral system. Farming should be confined to certain areas where there are sufficient groundwater resources (springs and wells) or where it has been possible to concentrate surface water by run-off or to drastically modify the areas through irrigation. Rather than planting trees which grow in height, it would be better, under this bioclimate, to grow and manage low vegetation to control wind erosion and create a natural roughness for the soil. In this respect a better knowledge of the ecology, conservation and utilization of this arid vegetation is of paramount importance. This vegetation could be used for sand-dune stabilization as a pasture reserve, in addition to its value as industrial material.

Semi-and zone. In the semi arid zone (Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria) there is a greater management choice than for arid areas - arboriculture, food crops and fodder products, industrial wood products, intensive livestock and a combination of such uses under an agro-silvo-pastoral management system. Trees and forestry activities have a preponderant role to play in supporting both agricultural and livestock production:

· Trees in rows protect crops against wind erosion and desiccation.

· Trees intermingled with crops protect the crops, reconstitute and enrich the soil.

· Thus improved, the cultivated zones lose their marginal character, rotation cropping becomes possible, a supply of fodder is ensured and much needed fuelwood is produced.

· A perfect combination of semi forest trees bearing edible fruit, fodder trees and forest trees ensures not only a diversified and stable production base but also, and above all, an agricultural and biological balance.

· Agriculture thus assumes a stable and balanced character.

In most countries of the region, however, trees, in rows or groups which constitute a continuum of agriculture, are not yet fully recognized as an integral part of agricultural development. Farmers are often reluctant to sacrifice any cultivated areas for these tree elements because they compete for water needed by agricultural crops, they harbour insects and birds and they sometimes facilitate the formation of dunes on the windward side. However, proper planning and management will avoid these drawbacks. Above all, farmers must be convinced through education and demonstration that these disadvantages are usually more than compensated by increased crop yields in the protected herds and by additional income from wood produced by the trees themselves.

Strategy. In examining a forestry development strategy for the ECWA region it should be apparent that there will be great differences in emphasis in the forestry activities within the sub-region itself, depending on the various ecological and socio-economic conditions. However, in view of the already advanced stage of degradation of natural resources and the expanding human pressure, measures should be taken as rapidly as possible to restore the formal balance in vegetation resources/human relationship and stimulate overall development. Within this framework two forestry policies are possible:

· Accept the established and recognized role of forestry in overcoming physical constraints to development contributing to rehabilitation, along with a combined and continuing stress on resource conservation and protection.

· Pursue a more dynamic approach, deploy more effort and resources toward the evolution of a new land use discipline concerned entirely with the problem of development, management and utilization of the vegetation types and inherent natural resources of the region.

In the first option, the emphasis is on conservation and rehabilitation measures adapted to specific sets of environmental and degradation conditions. It is geared to combat desertification and foster development. Important activities which deserve special attention are:

· Stabilization of moving dunes, climatic amelioration through amenity planting, water regulation in catchment areas.

· Establishment of shelterbelts, windbreaks and scattered trees in agricultural lands to increase crop yields as well as production of utility wood for farms and villages.

· Support to animal husbandry through silvo-pastoral methods, particularly through the creation of fodder reserves in the form of fodder trees and shrubs.

· Production of fuelwood, charcoal and other minor forest products through management of existing forests or establishment of village and farm woodlots.

· Utilization of wildlife, both for protein production and for tourism, based on farm viewing or hunting.

The UN Economic Commission for Western Asia

ECWA was established in 1974 by a resolution of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to provide facilities of a wider scope for those countries previously served by the UN Economic and Social Office in Beirut (UNESOB). The headquarters of ECWA is in Beirut. ECWA's programme is concerned with agriculture, forestry, industrial development, science and technology, natural resources, social development and human settlements, and population and statistics of its members. It gives high priority to combating desertification.

ECWA's membership consists of 13 countries plus the Palestine Liberation Organization.





Democratic Yemen.
















Saudi Arabia




United Arab Emirates






The second development option entails concentration on ligneous arid zone vegetation - trees, shrubs and woody species. In the final analysis, this is the region's largest resource of economic value to man. The wide area involved and its aridity, together with the multiplicity and complexity of its problems, fully justify the need for developing, managing and utilizing this ligneous vegetation. Many of the cultivation and management practices used by foresters could be adopted and applied in managing the perennial natural vegetation of the dry areas. Regarding utilization, the same techniques applied to forest tree species should be used with this vegetation and its end products, as follows:

· Soil stabilization and water conservation using multipurpose and low water consumption species (support to agriculture and animal husbandry).

· Protein production through wildlife and domestic animal conversion.

· Fuelwood, fibres and gum (gum arable), resins, tannins and other extracts for perfumes, pharmaceuticals, etc.

The use of this perennial vegetation as a source of industrial raw material is also possible.

The second alternative has often been neglected and it appears that it is an option whose time has come. Several enterprises utilizing desert plants for raw material are being established in many arid tracts in the United States, Mexico and Australia. Non-wood products from forest vegetation, often considered as marginal, play a major economic role in arid zones where conditions for height growth are limited. For several countries in the region which have a large dry zone, this choice would have better comparative advantages than wetter areas. Apart from forestry, the knowledge and expertise of other disciplines will be needed - in particular, range management, agriculture and basic sciences of ecology, sociology and economics.

In this arid region, rather than plant trees that grow in height, it is better to grow and manage low-growing bushes. They keep the sand from blowing away, create a natural roughness for the soil and prevent wind erosion and sand dunes.

The obstacles

The major obstacles stem from forest policy as well as from technological, socio-economic and institutional factors.

Each of the countries concerned determines its own forest policy within the context of its national policy. But certain aspects of forest policy, similar in many countries, concerning in particular the insistence on conservation of derelict forest lands, will have to be re-examined. This protection role has been one of the major arguments for the elimination of goats and financial support for tree planting. But this has also created the impression among the local populations that the aim of foresters was to serve the needs of trees and bushes and not of man. Thus, apart from a well-conceived and consistent information campaign to rectify such impressions, foresters must make greater efforts to identify their actions and their management objectives more closely with the interests of the people.

Forest plantations expensively established and maturing in three generations to come should be compared with indigenous vegetation. Are not the native, shrubs and bushes of equal or better protection value and capable of yielding a more immediate return if managed for non-wood products such as honey, extracts for perfumes, pharmaceuticals and fodder? Are they not also less demanding on soil and water resources and more easily reconciled with the new look of forestry development in the region?

In formulating or revising national forest policies it would also be prudent for the forestry administration to make specific and separate policy plans for the dry areas. The following factors should be fully considered in mapping out policies:

· Wood production per se cannot be the primary objective in the drier part of the arid zones. But it may be a by-product of shelterbelts or soil stabilization measures.

· The dependence of the population and their livestock on the land needs to be recognized as a de facto component of the environment. Policies should therefore reconcile and harmonize this requirement with overall management rather than treating it under the category of "forest enemies to be suppressed or eliminated."

· Water and soil conservation, wildlife management and recreation based on vegetation measures, and non-wood forest products are the main services and goods to be supplied.

In view of the environment's slow response to improvement, plans should envisage a long-term and sustained effort.

In general, the level of technology applied to arid-zone forestry is quite low and incapable of meeting, let alone solving, its difficulties. This does not stem so much from a lack of knowledge as from the fact that research in other countries with similar ecological conditions has not been adequately examined and documented in the ECWA region. In other instances, useful results have not been passed on for lack of adequate or effective extension services. This is perhaps the field where the need for regional cooperation is most obvious.

At the socio-economic level the problems stem from the low productivity of resources, their vulnerability and the minimal or non-existent participation of the local people in the improvement of their own forests. The involvement of these populations in the national development process poses an important challenge

The main institutional obstacles to the development of forestry in the ECWA region include: scarcity of skilled manpower at all levels - forestry professionals, technicians and skilled workers; insufficient administrative capabilities of forestry bureaucracies; inadequacy of means for involving local people in the implementation of forest policies. The establishment of suitable institutions for training competent personnel for the arid zones and for working closely with the farmers is a fundamental problem.

It is evident that forestry has a substantial role to play in overall development of the ECWA region. An analysis of development strategies for forestry in the region made by the Commission emphasized the need for large contributions from forestry to development and for desertification control. In particular, it drew attention to the role of ligneous vegetation, which represents an important line of action for multipurpose uses, as well as for development. But, whether we look for solutions from one strategy viewpoint or another, what is more important is a decision to foster the development of forestry resources and to help the inhabitants of these zones to contribute to, and benefit from, this policy.

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