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Forestry and environment

Given the dynamic nature of the global ecosystem, environmental change - driven by human-made and natural causes - is inevitable. The human species has always had an impact on the environment, but until recently the consequences of people's actions were limited in space and intensity, and changes were slow on a human time scale. However, during the past century and particularly over the past 50 years, economic activity and the rate of population growth have increased to the point where the effects of humanity on the environment can no longer be ignored or viewed as isolated, compartmentalized phenomena. The quality of many of the basic elements of the natural resource base - air, water, soil, etc. - is deteriorating; the widespread degradation of forest resources is a particularly poignant example. There is increasing concern that emission of pollutants may be having long-term and potentially irreversible effects, such as depletion of the ozone layer and climatic modification. The volume of waste being generated as a byproduct of development has reached alarmingly high levels.

Faced with this dramatic evidence, concern over the wise use of natural resources has increased rapidly over the past quarter century. At the local level, this shift can be seen in the explosive growth of environmental interest groups around the world. At the national level, governments have begun to give environmental and natural resource issues central places on their agendas, and the private sector has come under increasing popular and legislative pressure to adopt sustainable practices. At the international level, the evolving position of environmental values is reflected in successive reports of special UN World Commissions. Whereas commissions formed in the early 1980s had focused specifically on security or development issues, the 1987 Bruntland Commission report, Our common future, emphasized the connections between environment, development and security. FAO's long-standing commitment to environment and rural development has been further strengthened by the appointment of an Assistant Director-General/Special Adviser for Environment and Sustainable Development, and the establishment of a steering committee to assist the Director-General in guiding and monitoring FAO activities in these areas. Unasylva plans to feature an interview with Assistant Director-General P. Mahler in a future issue.

The growing concern for the environment has been paralleled by or even outdistanced by preoccupation with the future of the world's forest resources; commitment to the principles of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan by more than 70 developing countries is strong testimony. In this issue, Unasylva examines a number of aspects of the relationship between forestry and the environment. One of the most widely discussed environmental issues is the prospect of global climate change. K. Andrasko, a participant in a recent FAO Expert Consultation on forests and climate change, considers the current state of understanding about this complex interrelationship. A related article by B. Kyrklund explores the potential of industrial forestry to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Although a majority of experts tend to agree that some form of global warming is likely as a result of current patterns of development, there is by no means unanimity within the scientific community. A provocative article by Swedish astronomer G. Windelius sets out an opposing view, arguing that changing patterns of solar activity are about to provoke a period of global cooling, accompanied by increased seismic and volcanic activity.

The plight of the forests of Amazonia has become emblematic of the challenge of harmonizing development with environmental conservation. R. Samanez-Mercado examines the reaffirmed political commitment of the signatories of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty to sustainable management of natural resources.

Changes in the environment affect everyone, but the rural poor in the developing countries, with few or no reserves to permit them to adapt to new circumstances, are often the hardest hit. N. Rasaily, R. Pokharel and D. Messerschmidt talk with villagers in Nepal about their perspectives on environment and forests.

In the industrialized countries, there are growing indications that air pollution may be seriously compromising the future of forest resources. S. Nilsson and O. Sallnäs set out implications for European forests based on computer simulations of the potential results of continued air pollution. Another of the major environmental challenges, particularly in the more affluent countries, is how to cope with the increasing volume of waste. L. Lintu reviews the changing situation with regard to the recycling of waste paper by the paper and paperboard industry.

Environmental conservation is intimately tied to economics; sustainable management and rational use of natural resources must be made more beneficial (and more profitable) than degradation and destruction. M. Muthoo takes a critical look at the economic issues underlying environment and renewable resource planning.

In the final analysis the major challenge is to manage human activities so as to increase the prospects for sustainable development, while et the same time ensuring the stability of the earth's environment. The forestry sector must reaffirm a commitment to ensuring the convergence and complementarily of the environmental and developmental functions of forest management and sustainable utilization.

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