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The role of research in tropical forestry

R.E. Buckman

Robert E. Buckman is a professor at the College of Forestry, Oregon State University at Corvallis, United States, and is also President of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations.

Marking the occasion of the 19th World Congress of the international Union of Forestry Research Organizations, to be held in Montreal, Canada, in August 1990, this article briefly examines the rapidly increasing awareness of the importance of tropical forestry research and the past contributions and future potential of research to forestry development. A companion article provides an overview of forestry in host country Canada.

The International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO) is conducting its 19th World Congress from 6 to 11 August 1990 in Montreal, Canada. This is the last Congress for the Union in its first century of existence. These have been rich years for international cooperation in forestry research. From seven institutions at its founding in 1892 in Eberswalde, Germany, IUFRO membership has grown to nearly 700 research institutions in more than 100 countries. For most of its history, the cooperation and participation have been concentrated among institutions in the industrialized countries. However, as the Union concludes its first century, there are clear indications that forestry research is being and will continue to be strengthened in developing regions of the world. Even as this article goes to press, there are important discussions under way among governments, non-governmental organizations, bilateral and multilateral donors, FAO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Bank about the organization and focus of intensified forestry research for tropical countries.

Rising interest in tropical forestry research

A strong call for accelerated research to support forestry development in the Third World emerged from the 17th IUFRO World Congress, held in 1981 in Kyoto, Japan. A paper prepared for the Congress by FAO and the World Bank advocating a reappraisal of forestry research needs in developing countries (WB/FAO, 1981) led directly to the establishment of the IUFRO Special Programme for Developing Countries (SPDC) in mid-1983.

The work programme of the SPDC, as approved by the IUFRO Executive Board, sets out six major lines of activity: research planning; training in research management; training in research methods; improving the flow of information to forest scientists in developing countries; encouraging twinning and networking arrangements; and establishing an international forestry research training fund. Initial generous contributions from many donor agencies, including the World Bank, UNDP, and aid agencies in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany and Canada, and assistance in kind from FAO have permitted progress in the first four fields; for example, within the framework of the SPDC a number of regional research problem analyses have been prepared (IUFRO, 1989). More resources will be needed, however, to permit effective action in the last two areas of concentration.

Considerable further impetus for strengthening forestry research in developing countries came with the launch in 1985 of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) by FAO's Committee on Forest Development in the Tropics (FAO, 1986). In the TFAP's flexible framework, the need for an accelerated programme of research and institution-building to support resource conservation and sustainable forestry development is set out unequivocally:

"As long as extensive areas of natural forest were available for exploitation, little research was directed to silvicultural systems and management regimes. Although research and ensuing developments in this area will not provide the panacea to all the ills of tropical forestry, if correctly structured and rightly directed, research will assist to develop more efficient practices and higher productivity from the forest resource base... It is important, therefore, to expand and reinforce relevant research efforts..." (FAO, 1986).

Within the context of the TRAP, major donors and forestry and agricultural leaders met at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, in July 1987. One of the ten recommendations concerning tropical forestry to come out of Bellagio I called for strengthening research:

"Technical, biological, socioeconomic, and policy research must be intensified. As an example, there is significant potential to raise the productivity of multipurpose trees through breeding and biotechnology, thereby helping to meet rural basic needs. Substantially increased funding for such research will be necessary, and opportunities should be examined for establishing a consultative group for international forestry research and policy development, with a vision and determination comparable to the one organized for agriculture on this same conference site almost 20 years ago" (ITFFR, 1988).

In December 1988, as a follow-up to Bellagio I, an enlarged group of donors and forestry leaders met at Wiston House in the United Kingdom to focus specifically on the question of forestry research (ITFFR, 1988). This conference recommended that current efforts for forestry research be maintained until such time as forestry could be considered for inclusion in the Studies of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the umbrella organization for the 13 International Agricultural Research Centres.

After the Wiston House conference (commonly known as Bellagio II), a forestry panel was set up by the CGIAR Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The panel has held a series of meetings and prepared a number of papers suggesting various alternatives the incorporation of forestry research into the CGIAR system. In principle, forestry research has already been formally accepted into the system at the Group's meeting in Canberra, Australia, in 1989. Four forestry scientists have been added to the 14 agricultural specialists who have made up TAC so far. However, the specific elements of forestry research to come under the CGIAR system as yet have not been determined. Candidate areas include some aspects of forest genetics (including clonal propagation and biotechnology), conservation of woody plant germplasm, soil microbiology, natural forest management and conservation, and policy and socio-economic research. Agroforestry research is also under consideration for separate incorporation into CGIAR, as are several other at present non-associated research centres with natural resource mandates (soils, aquaculture, irrigation).

The incorporation of a forestry research mandate into the CGIAR system should improve collaboration between agriculture and forestry and foster cooperation on scientific areas common to both sectors. Further, it will permit forestry to draw on the strengths and experiences of the larger and more mature agriculture research systems, including research management and quality control, methods for training scientists and technicians, improved extension methods, and strengthening of national research institutions.

Acceptance of forestry research into the group of leading international agricultural research centres represents a major milestone for forestry. Most tropical forestry research, however, will continue to be done outside the CGIAR system, with the largest share undertaken by national institutions. The bulk of funds and staff, therefore, will need to come from within the developing countries, but bilateral and multilateral support and cooperation will be important too.

COPRA RESEARCH IN THE PHILIPPINES nearly half the world's supply of copra comes from the Philippine coconut industry

Collaborative networks such as those maintained by FAO, as well as by the Nitrogen Tree Fixing Association, the Centre technique forestier tropical of France, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza in Costa Rica, the Fuelwood/Forestry Research and Development project of USAID in Asia, and the Oxford Forestry Institute tree-breeding networks, will have a key role in maximizing efficiency and minimizing duplication of effort. In keeping with the Bellagio II recommendation to maintain the momentum of forestry research, the World Bank, UNDP, the Overseas Development Administration of the United Kingdom, USAID and others are now contributing more than US$1 million annually to IUFRO's Special Programme for Developing Countries to support work in regional networking, training and information sharing. It is also gratifying that FAO intends to strengthen its capacity to address forestry research, with special emphasis on building national capacities to conduct research.

Funding and institutions

An essential need lies in mobilizing additional financial support for tropical forestry research. Total investment for forestry research in developing countries in 1981, the last year for which global statistics are available, was about US$ 186 million, only about 12 percent of forestry research worldwide (Merger et al., 1988). Put another way, in 1981 forestry research in the developing world was supported at less than one-tenth the rate (or intensity) of agricultural research in terms of market value of production. The point here is not that agricultural research is excessively supported; it is that forestry research is woefully underfunded.

In 1986 international donors provided US$46 million for forestry research. A target for external funds should, in my view, be an additional annual contribution of US$100 million. By way of comparison, current external contributions plus the proposed $100 million would approximate the 1990 research budget of the US Forest Service; however, this represents only one-half of total public spending on forestry research in the United States. Increased funding will need to be paralleled by a strengthening of the capabilities of the recipient countries to develop effective programmes.

Contribution of research: Potential and priorities

New technology has been a major force in increasing productivity in agriculture in most regions of the world. The generation of improved technology remains a prime strategy of agriculture in the years ahead, as a way to use increasingly scarce resources-land, water, energy, etc.-more efficiently (CGIAR, 1987). The historical and prospective roles of research in forestry are parallel. Although the past contributions of research to forestry development have not been as well documented as those in agriculture, nonetheless a number of reports on the topic have been published recently (WRI, 1985; ITFFR, 1988).

These reports point to the especially significant progress that has come from research in the breeding and cultivation of fast-growing native and introduced tree species such as the eucalypts, pines, poplars, teak, Terminalia spp. and leguminous trees. Similarly, rapid gains have come from improved utilization research. The technology that led to improved utilization of rubberwood, for example, today permits Malaysia to export more than 250000 m³ a year of a material that previously was little used. Overall, internal rates of return on investments in utilization research have been high, ranging from 14 to more than 200 percent (Bengston and Jakes, 1986).

The Tropical Forestry Action Plan and the participants in Bellagio II are concordant on five priority areas for forestry research. It is noteworthy that these areas, while broad, embrace reasonably cohesive sets of research activities. However, the high order of interdependence among the five areas suggests that institutional arrangements must be sought that will encourage scientists in each of them to interact. Some of these areas undoubtedly will produce more rapid payoffs than others, but it is essential that research be accelerated among all of them.

RUBBERWOOD EXPORTED FROM MALAYSIA being worked in Taiwan, Province of China

In natural forest conservation and management, research must lead to a better understanding of ecological processes, of biodiversity, and of economically useful but lesser-known wood and non-wood products. Also essential is research on silvicultural practices that will permit sustainable extraction of both wood and non-wood products in natural forests not otherwise reserved as protected areas. This research is aimed at developing strategies for the protection and sustainable management of natural forests.

Research on trees in farming systems is concerned with agroforestry and watershed protection and rehabilitation-in short, the role of trees and shrubs in farming and pastoral systems. This research has many of the complexities of both agriculture and forestry and yet it is an important strategy to halt degradation of agricultural lands and to provide economic and social stability to rural areas. Much attention worldwide is now being directed toward this area of research, and particularly significant work is being done by the International Council for Research in Agroforestry, with its headquarters in Nairobi.

Investigations into tree breeding and intensive forestry, the forestry equivalent of agronomic research in wheat, rice and other agricultural crops, involve provenance testing, tree breeding, vegetative propagation, pest control, fertilization and all of the practices necessary to produce intensively high-yielding trees that may serve a variety of forestry and agroforestry purposes. The trees and cultural practices thus developed should be especially useful when applied to the rehabilitation of already degraded lands, simultaneously providing rural people with an important means for social and economic development. IUFRO's Special Programme for Developing Countries has already prepared a number of analyses in this field for Asia, Africa and South America (IUFRO, 1989).

Research into improved utilization-including improved recovery and processing of traditional wood and paper products, better use of wood in housing, and improved cooking stoves and charcoal kilns-offers rapid payoff through adaptive research from one region to another. It also offers high potential to enhance the recovery and quality of wood products heretofore wasted or underutilized. Within the context of the Special Programme for Developing Countries, IUFRO's Division 5 (Forest Products Research) has taken the lead in preparing problem analyses on these research needs for Southeast Asia, Africa and South America (IUFRO, 1989).

NON-WOOD FORESTRY RESEARCH IN PERU testing forest plants for medicinal properties

Research on policy and socio-economic analysis must be undertaken inside as well as outside the forestry sector, as it addresses questions that foster or impede sound forestry practices. A substantial part of this research must be performed cooperatively with agriculture and with other sectors and institutions within and among countries and regions. Examples of policy-related research concerned with forestry include studies of property rights and land tenure, culture and gender issues involved in conservation and land use, marketing and pricing policies for timber and non-timber products, effects of tariff and non-tariff trade barriers, institutional capacity to carry out forestry programmes, and the legal and regulatory setting for forestry.

Of the five areas of research, policy research is least developed. Considerable analysis yet remains to be done to determine priorities and organizational arrangements for such research. Properly done, these studies could have rapid and profound impacts on forestry. They also provide an important way for forestry to link with other land-use/economic and institutional sectors in a search for intersectoral solutions to problems affecting the sustainable utilization of tropical forest resources.


There is a clear need to build capacity to identify priorities for forestry research based on user needs; to strengthen existing institutions (both directly and through twinning and networking) and create new ones where necessary; and to plan, manage and conduct research at an accelerated pace. But forestry research can be meaningful only with a strong bond to the practical efforts it is intended to support. For example, an enlarged capacity for outreach and extension in order to stimulate participation in research programmes and disseminate existing as well as new information is essential. The TFAP process, with its global and multidisciplinary approach, is a powerful strategy for the insertion of new technology into action programmes and for the determination of the next generation of research priorities based on field-level user feedback.

Current developments in forestry research are leading to the creation of a comprehensive approach based on a partially centralized system (the CGIAR part), improved regional linkages (existing and new research networks), and strengthened national research capability. The pattern is similar to that of the current international agriculture research system: multiple participants, a mixture of centralized and decentralized institutions and strong interconnections to facilitate the sharing of information and to encourage cooperation.

More than 20 years ago, at Bellagio, the international agricultural research system came into being; it now comprises 13 outstanding agricultural research centres, supported by external contributions of some US$250 million per year. Partly as a result of that effort the world is now able to feed several hundred million additional people. Forestry research is now at a juncture not unlike the one agricultural research experienced 20 years earlier. Let us hope that it will fare as well and contribute as much to tropical forestry as agricultural research has contributed to food supply. If so, then IUFRO's second century will be off to a good start.


Bengston, D.N. & Jakes, P.J. 1986. Economic evaluation of forestry research: an overview of recent efforts. In Proceedings, IUFRO Working Party S4.05-05. 18th IUFRO World Congress. Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. IUFRO.

CGIAR. 1987.1986/1987 Annual Report. Washington, DC. CGIAR Secretariat at the World Bank.

FAO. 1986. Tropical Forestry Action Plan. Committee on Forest Development in the Tropics. Rome.

ITFFR. 1988. A global research strategy for tropical forestry. New York, UNDP, International Task Force on Forestry Research.

IUFRO. 1989. INCOFRE: a research and extension system for tropic al forestry. Vienna.

Mergen, F., Everson, R.E., Judd, M.A. & Putnam, J. 1988. Forestry research: a provisional global inventory. Discussion Paper No. 503. New Haven, Conn., Yale University, Economic Growth Center.

WB/FAO 1981. Forestry research needs in the developing world-time for reappraisal? Special paper produced for the 17th IUFRO World Congress, Kyoto, Japan. Rome, FAO.

WRI. 1985. Tropical forests: a call for action, parts I, II and III. Report of an International Task Force convened by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and UNDP. Washington, DC.

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