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Forestry: Essential for development

An interview with FAO Director-General Edouard Saouma

FAO Director-General Edouard Saouma

Unasylva: Mr Director-General, the year 1985 has been declared "International Year of the Forest" by the FAO Council. This year also marks FAO's fortieth anniversary, as well as the occasion of the Ninth World Forestry Congress in Mexico City. In view of these important events, Unasylva would very much appreciate your thoughts on the world forestry situation in general and on FAO's forestry programmes in particular.

Mr Saouma: I wish to emphasize right away that I consider forests to be very important for the environmental stability of our planet and the quality of life on it. First, because of their very scale. Forests cover one-third of the world's land surface. Literally half of the world's population lives in areas directly affected by forested watersheds. Forest products account for US$55000 million in world trade, making them one of the world's most important commodities. Five hundred million people are practicing some form of shifting cultivation or long-fallow agriculture on what are, essentially, forest lands. Second, forests are important because they are a source of so many goods and services. Forests provide wood for construction timber, veneers, pulp and paper, plywood and many other products; they provide fuelwood for 2000 million People; they provide fodder for animals. But their most important contribution is to agricultural production, by protecting soils, conserving water and ameliorating micro-climate. Forests are also a storehouse for a large number of the world's plant genetic resources, including wild relatives of our major crops. Forests also provide habitat for wildlife, and grounds for recreation.

Unasylva: You have said on many occasions that forestry has a major role to play in rural development. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Mr Saouma: The World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, hosted by FAO in 1979, underscored the fact that without rural development, there can be no national development. Without rural development, the massive migrations of the rural poor to the cities would continue. This migratory process is abetted by population growth which, despite encouraging progress, is still proceeding much too rapidly in many countries. The cities alone, like the rural areas, offer far too few opportunities for employment and a better life. The migrating rural poor soon become part of the vast ocean of urban poor. The cities, when filled with hundreds of thousands of rural poor, become breeding grounds for social, economic and political chaos. So it is imperative that we speed of rural development. As a minimum, this means meeting the subsistence needs of rural people. More broadly, it means providing Increased employment, income, services and opportunities for economic growth. And this is where forestry comes in, because forests and woodlands are in rural areas and could be utilized in such a way as to provide more benefits to the rural people. In this respect, I think we have already seen the beginnings of an important shift in forestry policy and practice. Foresters have, traditionally, been concerned with the productive and protective roles of the forest. Now they are also beginning to concentrate upon the social dimension of forestry, and particularly upon forestry's role in rural development. This is a policy shift of considerable importance. We can see it reflected in the fact that the theme of the Jakarta World Congress was "Forests for People" while the theme selected for the Mexico City World Congress is "Forestry in the Integral Development of Society". These themes demonstrate that foresters themselves are becoming more aware of forestry's social role and that they are ready to ensure that a greater share of the benefits from forestry reaches the rural people.

Unasylva: But what are these benefits that forestry could bring to rural people?

Mr Saouma: To answer this question better, perhaps we should distinguish between those cases where natural forests already exist and those areas where reforestation or afforestation is needed. While it is true that existing tropical forests are being depleted at an alarming rate - 11 million hectares world wide every year - the fact remains that there still are large areas left. Some areas should be designated as natural areas or national parks. However, most of the existing forest land could, and should, be opened up to development and brought under rational management, to increase and diversify production and spur the creation of new industries or the expansion of existing ones to provide off-farm employment and incomes for rural communities. By "industries" here, I mean everything from the harvesting of raw materials to processing, and from fully integrated pulp and paper plants to small, local businesses making such products as furniture, charcoal or rattan baskets. Benefits from natural forests also include the production, at the community level, of various non-industrial products such as food, fodder, fuelwood, rosin, poles and thatch. Thus, appropriate forest industries contribute to economic growth over and above traditional community benefits. The benefits of forestry are greater and more spectacular where tree planting is used as a means of halting the advance of desertification, which results in environmental disasters and human tragedy, and not just in the Sahel - where its devastating effects have been well publicized but also in other parts of the world. Tree-planting in these areas can restore soil fertility, protect against wind and erosion, enhance water supplies and pave the way for the reestablishment of sustainable crop and livestock production. The planting of multi-purpose, fast-growing trees in arid and semiarid areas can provide fuelwood and fodder, apart from shelter and protection. At the level of the individual farm, the correct Integration of trees enhances agricultural production and food security. The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in her McDougall Lecture to the FAO Conference in 1981, said that the second Green Revolution would come when small farmers around the world systematically planted trees on their land.

Unasylva: You have referred to the role of forests and trees in food production. This is something not well understood by the general public. Could you elaborate?

Mr Saouma: Although precise statistics and records do not exist, we all know that forests provide habitat for wildlife and for fish, which are direct sources of food in both the developing and the Industrialized world. In many countries, meat from forest animals and fish comprises a major source of protein. Forests also supply such commodities as mushrooms, oils, nuts, fruits and honey, and many edible plants. But more important is the indirect role of forests in food production and food security. In fact, in many localities, agriculture simply could not exist without forests, woodlands and trees. Without good soils, adequate water supplies and climatic amelioration, agriculture would be impossible. And it is precisely these considerations that make watershed management in the upper catchment areas so important in order to prevent both flooding and drought in the lower elevations and the valleys below.

"Prime Minister Gandhi said that the second Green Revolution would come when small farmers around the world systematically planted trees on their land."

Unasylva: In the past, forestry and agriculture were regarded as separate, sometimes even antagonistic, disciplines. How true is this today?

Mr Saouma: Although forestry and agriculture have a common scientific basis, they are two separate disciplines. However, the era when foresters and agriculturalists regarded each other as potential threats is over. Both professions have realized that the two sectors are intimately and permanently interrelated. At FAO, the role of forestry in food security and in human nutrition, particularly through fuelwood, is fully recognized by the foresters. On the other hand, the agronomists now appreciate the role of trees both in increasing productivity and in diversifying incomes from the farm. Both sides fully recognize that efforts must now be directed toward achieving "vertical" rather than "horizontal" expansion in agricultural as well as forestry production; that is, to increase the per-hectare output of crops or wood, thereby lessening the competition for land between the two land users. If each hectare of agricultural land can produce more crops and can Yield more meat and other products, then there is less need to convert more forest land to agricultural use. Similarly, if the yield of forest products per hectare of forest land is increased, then more of the fertile, lowland forest areas can be used for food production in response to the growing food needs of increasing populations.

Unasylva: Recently, grave concern was expressed by several governments and at various international forums about forest destruction and the need for international action in forest conservation and protection. What are the threats faced by the forests?

Mr Saouma: Forests are indeed facing a multitude of very serious threats, the magnitude of which should not be underestimated. However, we still have ample time to correct the situation and reverse the present trend. Naturally, this requires coordinated planning and a global outpouring of money and effort. It is precisely for this reason that the Fourteenth FAO Regional Conference for Europe resolved that the forest be duly recognized during 1985 as a global concern and that the FAO Council, at its Eighty-sixth Session, declared the year 1985 the International Year of the Forest. A major forum for discussion of this topic will be the Ninth World Forestry Congress in Mexico City. In tropical countries, FAO's own studies have conclusively shown that agricultural expansion, shifting cultivation and, to a lesser extent, excessive logging are removing ten times as much forest as is currently being put back through reforestation. To change this, we must step up the rate of reforestation dramatically and at the same time reduce the rate of forest clearance. However, it is important to note that threats to the forest exist not only in tropical countries. Temperate forests in industrialized countries, which had remained relatively stable over the past several decades, are now being threatened by a combination of add rain and other environmental factors. Solving this problem will require more research and more international cooperation. In arid zones, a combination of overgrazing and excessive fuelwood cueing and gathering is endangering the survival of entire forest and woodland areas. Here, as I said earlier, we need to do everything possible to plant multipurpose, fast-growing trees.

"At FAO, the role of forestry in food security and in human nutrition is fully recognized."

"FAO's own studies have conclusively shown that agricultural expansion, shifting cultivation and excessive logging are removing ten times as much forest as is currently being put back through reforestation."

Unasylva: You mentioned the collecting and gathering of fuelwood. FAO has recently played a very significant role in making the world aware of the vast dimensions of the fuelwood crisis. Is this crisis getting better, or is it worsening?

Mr Saouma: The extent of the fuelwood crisis is truly staggering. According to FAO estimates, 1000 million people in developing countries are facing fuelwood shortages. This number could easily rise to 2000 million by the end of the century, if present trends continue. I have said on other occasions that it is of little value to provide food for the hungry of the world if they lack the means by which to cook it. Some three-quarters of the people in developing countries depend upon wood as their sole source of energy for cooking and heating. And this situation is unlikely to change markedly in the near future. Developing countries are generally lacking in the necessary facilities and infrastructure to use other forms of energy, such as coal, oil or gas, or solar, nuclear or hydro energy, even if these were available at low prices. The stories in the press of the industrialized world claiming that the recent drop In oil prices has ended the energy crisis are misleading. For at least half of humankind, the energy crisis is not over. It is still very much alive. In terms of total money spent and total power generated, wood can seem like a very minor source of energy. But in terms of human beings - and It is they that matter moat - wood remains the world's most important energy source.

Unasylva: If fuelwood collection by individuals - usually women - In rural areas represents one end of the forestry spectrum, perhaps we can put forest industries at the other end. What policies and programmes is FAO following with regard to forest industries?

Mr Saouma: We are emphasizing the expansion and diversification of forest industries in the developing world, which possesses one-half of the planet's forest resources but produces only 20 percent of the total forest products. This situation needs to change. Eighty percent of the wood used in developing countries goes for fuelwood and charcoal. The remaining 20 percent accounts for all other domestic consumption and for exports. But half of the exports are still in the form of logs, which are converted in other countries. Developing countries import 20 percent more processed higher-value products such as sawnwood, plywood and veneer from industrialized countries than they export to them. This means a net loss in foreign exchange of more than $800 million per year. So, much of our effort is directed toward improving the capacities of industries in developing countries to produce higher-value wood products.

Unasylva: How is this being done? And what is me focus of FAO's programmes for forest industries?

Mr Saouma: In the past, FAO has worked with equipment manufacturers to develop a portfolio of plans and designs covering a wide range of small-scale forest: industries. In many countries, such small-scale enterprises were thought to represent the best way to utilize the forest resource. FAO has also assisted in feasibility studies and the installation of large-scale forest-industrial complexes, of pulp and paper mills costing hundreds of millions of dollars. In some cases, large-scale enterprises were considered to be the best solution for a country seeking to develop its forest industry. Now the emphasis is on appropriate industries. This concept implies that the industry is deliberately designed to match more closely the extent and nature of its forest resources to the available management and technical capabilities, as well as to the relative skill of its work-force and the financing it can bring to bear on new forestry projects. Above ail, we are trying to emphasize that local people should be included in the decision-making process and that some of the benefits of whatever forest industries are developed should be returned to them.

Unasylva: A number of problems, such as rural poverty, the fuelwood shortage, shifting cultivation and tropical deforestation, acid rain, desertification and underdeveloped forest industries, have been mentioned as requiring urgent solutions. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that such problems can be solved?

Mr Saouma: I am optimistic, and I believe my optimism is fully justified. People throughout the world, in both developing and industrialized countries, as well as many governments and organizations, have expressed great concern over the fate of the forests. This is underscored by the amount of media attention given to the subject, which in itself is a hopeful sign for the future. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the growth of literally hundreds of non-governmental organizations concerned with some aspect of forest development or the forest environment. There are groups concerned with wildlife, groups concerned with fuelwood, groups concerned with environmental protection, groups concerned with promoting rural development. We have today in the world a critical mass of energy - human energy ready to be converted into a chain reaction of concrete actions to protect our forests and to stimulate the whole process of development. There are also clear signs that governments are ready to take separate or collective action. In fact, considerable progress has already been made in some regions. On the technical side, organizations like FAO stand ready to provide assistance. We in FAO are continuously striving to improve the quality of our field projects and to make them fully responsive to the pragmatic needs of our member countries. With the growing understanding of and support to forestry that are now evident worldwide, among people and their political leaders alike, I am confident we shall succeed in resolving these problems.

Unasylva: Thank you, Mr Director-General.

FAO, Rome

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