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Key forestry policy issues in the early 1990s

M.R. de Montalembert

Marc René de Montalembert is Chief of the Forestry Planning and Institutions Service, FAO Forestry Department.

The conservation of forest resources and their rational utilization for development are not necessarily incompatible, but their complementarily must be actively sought. The new orientations of forestry policy need to organize this complementarily and overcome conflicts with the sole objective of fully realizing forestry's potential for sustainable development. A democratic consultation process is needed to encourage the broad participation of all interest groups in the formulation and implementation of forestry responses to the needs of development.

The fact that the forestry issue is now in the limelight may be attributed in part to an awareness of the failures and dangers of previous development orientations in a world characterized by population and resource distribution imbalances as well as growing poverty and socio-economic tensions. It reflects a new understanding of the multiple role played in development by such an important renewable resource as the forest provided it is effectively and sustainably managed. It also derives from the different forms of interest being shown by broader sectors of public opinion and political circles

Despite the fact that the developing countries have roughly one-half of the world's forests, they account for less than 20 percent of industrial wood products

This new perception of the role of forestry activities in development, together with its resultant political and public discussions, directly conditions the formulation of forestry policies that are in tune with the challenges of the 1990s. These policies need to meet the expectations of society and reflect changes in the major economic, social and environmental functions of the forest, brought about by the needs of equitable and sustainable development. These changes are mentioned briefly in the first part of this article, which provides a clearer insight into the major issues that need to be addressed by future forestry policies. These issues are covered in the second part of the article, while the major implications of the new forestry policies advocated are outlined in the final part.

Recent developments in the major functions of the forest

The forestry sector widely confirmed its economic importance during the 1980s when it generated major activities and flows of wealth, extending beyond the traditional mechanical and chemical industries associated with timber. But this economic aspect has been somewhat blurred by a new awareness of the social importance of forestry activities, particularly for the most vulnerable rural groups in the more marginal areas. At the same time, there has been growing concern over the degradation and destruction of tropical and temperate forests, which has occurred for various reasons. At the beginning of the 1990s, what is needed is a balanced view of forestry's economic, social and environmental functions in development, together with an understanding of how these functions operate and interrelate.

The economic function

World production of roundwood has continued to grow at an annual rate of 1 percent and, in 1989, exceeded 3 400 million m³, more than one-half of which was made up of fuelwood. Tables 1a and 1b indicate the distribution of forest product consumption among developed and developing countries.

More than three-quarters of the production and consumption of industrial wood are concentrated in the Northern Temperate Zone, with an additional 7 percent occurring in the Southern Temperate Zone. The tropical countries, with approximately one-half of the resource, only account for one-fifth of world production. World trade in industrial forest products is largely dominated by Europe and North America whose exports in 1989 amounted to US$70 000 million out of a world total of $91 000 million. Tropical country exports amounted to less than $12 000 million.

Projections made both by FAO (ECE/FAO, 1986) and the countries themselves (ECE/FAO, 1989; ECE/FAO, 1990), or by study groups such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), (Nilsson, Sallnas and Duinker, 1990) and Resources for the Future (Sedjo and Lyon, 1990), indicate that consumption in the industrialized countries will continue to grow moderately. Whatever the differences and uncertainties in the projected growth rates, the important aspect for forestry policies is that none of these studies anticipates a major change in the markets of the major industrial forest products.

At the end of the 1980s, the per caput consumption of industrial roundwood in the developing countries represented one tenth of that in the industrialized countries. The production of sawnwood is by far the most important activity because of the construction work generated by population growth and urbanization. This growth should continue at a rate of 3 percent per year from now until 2000 because of the additional 1 000 million inhabitants expected in the 1990s and because of the low level of industrial forest product consumption. Trade should develop far more among developing countries than between developing and developed countries.

Particular attention should be paid to fuelwood and charcoal as they account for 80 percent of total wood consumption in developing countries. More than 2 000 million people, that is, the vast majority of rural households and small rural industries, use wood as their primary source of energy. Fuelwood consumption is expected to continue rising at 1.7 percent per year. However, developing country energy and forestry policies often fail to give appropriate consideration to this essential component of the daily domestic economy and the national energy balance.

To meet the needs of growing populations, well-planned conversion of forest land to agricultural production will be necessary in many parts of the developing world

TABLE 1a. Consumption of major forest products, 1989 (million m³)



Developed countries

Developing countries


1 785


1 517

Industrial roundwood

1 683

1 288






Wood-based panels




Paper and paperboard 1




1 Expressed in million tonnes

TABLE 1b. Consumption of major forest products per 1 000 caput, 1989 (million m³)



Developed countries

Developing countries





Industrial roundwood


1 036






Wood-based panels




Paper and paperboard 1




1 Expressed in million tonnes

The social function

Traditional forestry statistics refer to the macro-economic function and ignore the important contribution of forest resources (forest, trees and shrubs) to the local rural economy. This contribution is vital in many developing countries for the subsistence, and sometimes survival, of the poorest rural population groups. In its 1990 report on poverty, the World Bank presents significant examples of rural poverty situations (see Table 2). Although forests are important in most of these countries, forestry activities have traditionally focused on economic growth and have disregarded the rural poverty issue.

Recent studies have revealed the extent to which forestry activities form an integral part of rural food security strategies (FAO, 1989). Dependence on wild foods is too common and too often linked to poverty for the forest's importance as a direct source of food and medicine to be ignored. The same studies have also highlighted the richness of traditional knowledge, particularly that of women who hold greater responsibilities in household health and nutrition. The implications that a forestry project may have in this regard should therefore be systematically examined.

Even more important than the direct production of food is the role of the forest and woodlots in income and employment generation (FAO, 1987). Millions of low income or landless rural households depend on the harvesting, processing and sale of forest products as their chief, and sometimes only, source of cash income to tide them over during the lean or difficult periods of the agricultural cycle.

Another significant aspect is the growing importance attached to trees in numerous traditional farming systems (FAO, 1990a,c). Farmers are modifying their strategies to match resource availability as population pressure reduces the land area; fallow periods are shortened or even eliminated; and fragmentation reduces the size of holdings. In a remarkable number of cases these strategies have involved the integration of tree cultivation to diversify and intensify farm productivity within the constraints of land and labour availability. The strategies of the small farmers have therefore reinforced the role and increased the number of trees, offsetting the expansion and intensification of agriculture in areas where the forest cover is being increasingly depleted.

Recognition of the importance of forestry activities for the subsistence and development of rural populations, particularly in terms of food security and alleviation of poverty, necessarily leads to a major reorientation of forestry policies. It is not enough that local people share in the benefits of forestry activities. The people who depend on these activities for survival need to: take part in their design, according to their needs and skills; manage activities in line with their own modalities; have access to the necessary resources; and be recognized as protagonists with rights of ownership to the fruits of their labour. It is no longer a question of involving local populations as a matter of course, but rather one of reversing the relationship and ensuring that forestry planners are willing to cooperate in and support the initiatives of rural populations.

The environmental function

General awareness of the need to maintain development potential for future generations has increasingly emphasized the "ecological" role of forests. In this respect, three essential factors need to be considered on account of their implications for policy design: the interaction between forestry and other land uses; biodiversity and genetic resources; and climate change.

TABLE 2. Rural poverty indicators

Region and country

Rural population as percentage of total

Rural poor as percentage of total

Rural infant mortality (per 1 000 births)

Rural access to safe water (percentages of population)

Forest area as percentage of total land area

Sub-Saharan Africa


Côte d'Ivoire


















































Latin America
































Source: World Bank, 1990

TABLE 3. Value of selected non-wood forest products


Raw material

Commercial product

Value (million US$)


Tendu leaves
(Diospyros melanoxylon)

Bidi cigarettes



(Calamus spp.)

Furniture cane (mostly unfinished)



Gum resin
(Pinus massoniana)

Naval stores



Babassu palm
(Orbignya phalerata)

Fruits, edible/industrial oils, charcoal, feed



Acacia senegal

Gum arabic


West Africa

Shea butter
(Vitellaria paradoxum)

Edible oil


FAO has estimated that cultivated land area will have to be increased by 10 million ha per year if the needs of developing country populations (expected to increase by 1 000 million in the 1990s) are to be met. A large part of this area will have to be provided by converting land currently under forest cover. A similar transfer of land use must be selective and organized with the assistance of foresters. Too often, poorly designed or badly applied agrarian reform and rural development policies produce disorganized agricultural expansion. At the same time, few investments are made in the remaining forests which policy-makers often consider as reserve land. In contrast, the existence of agricultural surpluses and the concentration of production on the best lands in the industrialized countries mean that productive agricultural land is gradually being converted into forest land, predominantly for natural conservation and recreational purposes. In both cases, forestry policies have so far seemed to be oriented more toward maintaining the status quo than promoting innovation. Moreover, they tend to be introduced in the almost total absence of a rational intersectoral approach to rural land use and the stable equilibrium needed for the conservation and sustainable management of forest resources.

Another area of increasing concern is the preservation of the genetic resource base and biodiversity for future development needs. The uncontrolled and extensive destruction of particularly rich forest ecosystems continues to cause irreversible damage. Yet the solutions are known, even if they are not applied. The conservation of threatened ecosystems and of the genetic resources of major species requires the establishment of protected areas integrated with land development plans that provide the local populations with development alternatives. The setting aside of such protected areas is perfectly compatible with the development of neighbouring forest areas. The two may dovetail if forest management and harvesting are organized in such a way that a certain degree of biological diversity is maintained. This process is not necessarily complex or costly: examples in Malaysia, India, the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Brazil and Peru testify to the feasibility of such sustainable forest management under favourable economic, political and institutional conditions.

Problems associated with the impact of atmospheric pollution on forests in industrialized countries are a serious cause for environmental concern. For example, IIASA has estimated a 25 percent loss of forestry income for Central Europe in the next 100 years if atmospheric pollution continues unabated (Nilsson, Sallnas and Duinker, 1990). Any lasting solution will require concerted intersectoral policy approaches.

Apart from the emission of carbon dioxide gases from forest burning, which is far lower than that produced by fossil fuels, the relationship between forest resources and climatic change is still poorly understood (FAO, 1990b). The warming of the atmosphere should accelerate tree growth in certain regions, though it may also modify the distribution of species at rates that will make adjustment difficult. However, it is utopic to envisage millions of hectares of plantations being established to absorb the carbon. It would be far more realistic and economically viable to encourage a more intensive management of existing forests, thereby providing for both enhanced growth and the preservation of biological diversity. The absorbed carbon would thus be "trapped" in the industrial wood produced and processed into durable goods.

The growing complexity and interaction of the different forest functions present a challenge to traditional forestry policies. It is difficult to dissociate the factors of conservation and development but they do not necessarily exist in tandem. The challenge for the forestry sector during the last decade of this century is to mobilize the efforts required to find the best solutions to the concurrent and potentially conflicting demands relating to environmental stability, economic growth and social participation. The economic and environmental functions of forestry necessarily have a social impact: the question that every policy-maker must ask will relate to the realization and reconciliation of these two factors for the maximum social benefit. Of the three functions differentiated in this analysis, the point of reference from a development perspective must be the social function.

Key forestry policy issues

Forestry policies reflect the orientations of individual governments so as to meet national socio-economic development needs. They should therefore develop within the broader and more complex context of development policy discussions, and within the framework of increasingly integrated and interdependent economies. The conservation and development of forests is not an objective per se but rather a tool to be employed in the larger-scale process of achieving national and international development objectives and priorities.

Forestry policies in the 1990s need to be reconsidered not only in line with the evolution of the forest resource base, but also according to the potential contribution of forestry activities to major development needs. In this connection, over and above the host of particular local and national situations, six major issues constitute the common denominator underlying a revision of forestry policies.

To help ensure benefits for rural people, in the 1980s China placed more than 20 million ha of forest under the control of local communes

Forestry activities as an integral component of rural development

This discussion has revealed the role of forests as an integral component of rural development, extending beyond the provision of industrial raw materials. This role oversteps the forest boundaries to include all forms of tree integration in agricultural and pastoral production systems. The forestry component of the rural economy is also notable because of the fact that the traditional expertise of local populations often includes a sizeable pool of technical and technological skills. Forestry activities are therefore particularly suited to the needs of participatory, decentralized and self sustained rural development.

It is therefore important for forestry policies to acknowledge this role explicitly and provide active support and encouragement. The implications are numerous: first, in contrast to traditional policies, clearer priority must be given to the needs of local populations, particularly those who are more heavily dependent on forest resources; preference should be granted systematically to species and types of products and services that intensify and diversify the forest's contribution to the local economy: new policies should encourage the multipurpose and multifunctional management of forest resources in a mix that is strongly influenced by local requirements. They should also actively encourage tree growing wherever this may boost the local economy, and should grant growers the full benefit of their labour. A noteworthy example is the case of China where, in the 1980s, 20 million ha were transferred to 50 million peasant households for the establishment of small plantations and woodlots; at the same time, 175 000 forest cooperatives were established.

Recognizing forestry as a component in rural development does not mean neglecting the production of industrial raw materials, but rather encouraging the combined production of other wood and non-wood products. Forestry policies should also link traditional large-scale forest industry with small local enterprises to add maximum local value to production and, in doing so, foster the systematic growth of local economic capacities.

Recognition of the close relationship between sustainable forest management and poverty alleviation

This relationship is particularly important since the populations living in or near the forest are generally among the poorest. The lack of a sustainable livelihood leads them to overexploit or destroy the forest. However, it must be remembered that poverty is also a consequence of deforestation which is too often encouraged by poorly conceived agricultural expansion policies that fail to offer a sustainable production alternative to the forest. The conservation of the forests is therefore conditional upon the alleviation of rural poverty.

The only solution is to make the forest land-use option more attractive than destructive activities. Forestry action should therefore help local populations, and in particular the most vulnerable groups, to develop a sound productive utilization of forest resources so that these may provide them with the basis for a decent existence. When there are insufficient forest resources, even degraded land can be rehabilitated by action designed to meet the needs of the poorest inhabitants: the objective of the Wasteland Development Programme in India, for example, is to carry out reforestation and thereby produce the wood and fodder that are essential to the economy of the poorest groups (Government of India, 1990).

The incorporation of trees in villages and homesteads must be encouraged in forest policy

The link between sustainable management and poverty alleviation has a number of implications for forestry policies. It means recognizing the existence of resource-poor groups who depend on the forest and seeking solutions that defer to this dependence. In this context, the new forestry policy adopted by India in 1988 is significant because of the attention it pays to the needs of the poorer groups, with a view not only to mitigating their poverty, but also to ensuring the permanence of the forests (Government of India, 1988). The policy clearly provides for action in favour of the tribal groups, who are among the poorest inhabitants: the production of fuelwood, fodder and other non-industrial forest products of major importance locally is specifically encouraged, as is their processing by cooperatives which mainly involve the poorest groups, particularly women. Significant economic results have already been obtained which should have a lasting impact on the level of poverty.

The role of forests and trees in sustainable development

As food security is a fundamental requisite for sustainable development, it should naturally determine the dynamics of land utilization. A prime example is the historical case of Europe where forests were converted to agriculture until the end of the nineteenth century. At that point, enhanced agricultural productivity surpassed population growth as well as increases in demand for food and the trend was reversed. Since then, there has been a continuous expansion of forest cover. The situation is still very different in the developing world where the horizontal expansion of agriculture is - and will remain - a necessity, and where a reduction in forest cover is consequently inevitable. It is probably utopic to call for a halt to deforestation; however, everything possible should be done to encourage rational and effective land management which acknowledges that, in specific situations, the forest and trees constitute the best option for sustainable development.

Despite the radical differences between the developed and developing country situations, the same procedure is required: there is a need to identify low-potential areas where forestry offers the best course of action because of its economic viability, social acceptability and long-term ecological stability. Elsewhere, particularly where agriculture is predominant, trees - and no longer the forest - play an important role as they safeguard the stability of soil and water resources. Of note are the recent developments in Brazilian policy vis-à-vis the Amazonian forest, including: the introduction of ecological zoning; the establishment of specific-purpose forest areas; and the withdrawal of the fiscal incentives that encouraged unregulated deforestation.

Here again, it is important that forestry policies seek to support the dynamics at work while aiming at long-term stability, needed to secure forest investment. Policies should encourage and support the implementation of forest options in areas that have low potential for agriculture or are ecologically fragile. They should also favour complementarily with agricultural and livestock development to achieve harmonious, productive and sustainable land use. Such an approach should recognize the role of trees in natural resource management.

Recently, a number of Sahelian countries such as Senegal and the Niger have recognized the need to move away from the traditional territorial approach to forest demarcation. The integration of forest components in the management of village land is encouraged, as is local community ownership of the production output from forests managed by them and farmers' ownership of the trees they have planted.

In Costa Rica, government policy promotes both the conservation and sustainable use of forest resources

Forestry policies must recognize that local people are key partners in decision making as well as in action. There is a need for greater flexibility and consultation in policy implementation. Any lasting solution should be based on a permanent policy dialogue at the community level, involving both the public institutions and the local organizations that operate in the various sectors of rural development.

The protection of nature and the conservation of genetic resources

Past methods of forest management and utilization have been criticized for having thoughtlessly produced changes in landscapes and the environment; the degradation of complex and vulnerable ecosystems: the disappearance of species; and a reduction in the genetic heritage. The feasibility of forest management techniques that ensure the long-term conservation of these functions has even been questioned. "Soft" methods arc technically possible but strong support is required from forestry policies and fiscal instruments to ensure their economic and social effectiveness.

In Costa Rica, efforts to conserve protected areas, which began in the 1970s, have led to one-fifth of the national land area being under protection and have also helped develop scientific tourism. Parallel efforts have been made to encourage the sustained management of tropical forests for timber production. Some tropical or temperate forest ecosystems are unique in terms of situation or genetic wealth and should, in the general interest, be conserved intact. The international community should play its part in bearing the related costs, but mere financial compensation is insufficient as a country does not sell the sovereign right to its resources. An authentic international cooperation policy should support development alternatives outside the conservation areas in exchange for their protection. International action that combines conservation and development is too important to be left to individual good intentions and undoubtedly merits an international agreement stipulating worldwide obligations. The issue extends far beyond the establishment of a world network of protected areas and cannot be dissociated from the global function of forests at the national, regional and international levels. An international agreement should be supported by a fund to finance conservation and complementary development actions, an idea which was launched by the Director-General of FAO in 1990 and which is currently under study.

A lot still needs to be done toward fully incorporating these aspects of conservation into forestry policies, which should at least support the systematic use of "soft" techniques for natural forests and permit multipurpose management that includes natural and genetic resource conservation Policies should encourage dialogue and allow for reconciliation among groups with divergent opinions and interests regarding the role of forests.

The development of forest production and industries

The current debate on the role of forests in maintaining environmental stability cannot hide the fact that development can only be sustainable if it is based on solid economic foundations: the forest is, and will remain, a very important renewable source of raw materials. Forestry policies should continuously strive to improve the economic efficiency of the sector in terms of production and industrial processing.

In Europe, the protective and recreational roles of the forest are being increasingly combined

The role of forest production activities should be re-examined in a time of privatization and market-driven forces. Public and private owners are particularly interested in obtaining the maximum financial benefits from forest management, mainly from the production of industrial wood. The performance of the sector will be conditioned by the ability of forest technicians and managers to generate high levels of income and reinvest in the maintenance and growth of production. Price and forest-producer income policies, as well as tax and credit policies, are important instruments and their effectiveness should be constantly checked and compared with investment conditions in other competing sectors.

Policies should encourage a symbiosis between the productive and protective functions of the forest. This is not always easy in North America and Western Europe where there is considerable discussion on the distinction between protective and recreational forests and productive forests. New forestry legislation in Switzerland attaches far greater weight to protection and landscape maintenance than in the past. In France the national parks and wildlife protection are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment, while the remaining areas of forestry are governed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the developing countries most forest resources are under the direct control or influence of the forest administrations that subcontract harvesting activities. However, the various responsibilities need to be reviewed, given the weaknesses of the administrations and their inadequate staffing as well as the notable inadequacies of contractual arrangements and the often speculative conduct of the subcontractors. Greater responsibility should be given to those who harvest the forests so that their activities become part of sustainable forest management under strict government control. The assurance of having long term access to the same resource and being able to depend on its sustainability encourages investment in its long-term productivity. The linkage between these issues and the concessionary regulations for dense tropical forests has been highlighted in recent studies conducted by FAO and the World Bank on the forestry fiscal policies of western and central Africa.

The participation of rural populations

The forestry sector should actively participate in the shaping of viable economic systems to provide rural populations with adequate means of subsistence and development. An active commitment to the conservation and management of forest resources depends on the populations being involved as forestry producers and beneficiaries. Such participation should not only be seen as a vital component of successful forestry policy, but should also be recognized as a genuine economic resource that needs to be fully tapped.

Forestry policies should recognize the priority of ensuring local populations access to the benefits of forestry activities if their participation is to be effectively encouraged. This means promoting access to the resources and inputs needed for rational forest utilization. It also means acknowledging the value of traditional technical skills and the role of local organizations. Within a familiar and acceptable framework, policy objectives should be to promote a sense of responsibility among rural communities for a resource that contributes significantly to their well-being. Such policies are only possible in the presence of effective dialogue and decentralized decision-making. In the Dominican Republic, for example, a broad policy of opening up to local organizations has resulted in their reinforcement and increased operational capacity. The outcome has been the launching of a forest action plan, prepared with the exemplary participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which are now playing a leading role in its implementation.

The fate of common property lands, often with at least partial forest cover, has been largely belittled or ignored, and their fragmentation and appropriation by richer population groups have deprived the poor of access to an essential resource. Yet there are intermediary solutions between private and public appropriation and there is scope for common management that combines sustainability and rights of access to the poor. Our understanding of how these common management systems function is still insufficient and the situations where such systems can promote sustainable development need to be identified. Policymakers should pay attention to common resource management systems and recognize the role that local organizations, and in particular user associations, can play within them.

Most current forestry policies still largely ignore non-industrial wood products and the small industries or rural crafts and trades that process and market them. Yet besides contributing significantly toward the diversification of rural employment, these activities provide a considerable boost to local participation in the development of forest and tree production. This largely informal subsector has problems of access to raw materials, technologies, credit, markets, training and information. Forestry policies should therefore provide the direction needed to enhance its performance and improve its contribution to development.


Current forestry policies are still too often influenced by the traditional orientations of forest protection and exclusive encouragement of industrial wood production. Whenever public and private interests have been in opposition the matter has been settled by prohibitions or regulations. Policies have often been designed without consideration of the linkages existing between the forestry sector and the other areas of development, and they have failed to respond to situational changes as well as to the growing diversity of forestry interests. Meanwhile, governments and public opinion have become increasingly conscious of the need for new development approaches that maintain the potential for future generations. At the same time, the wealth and complexity of forestry's contribution to development is becoming more clearly understood. These contributions are often - though not necessarily - complementary, as witnessed by the immediate financial interests of a forest owner as opposed to the long-term and non-monetary interests of society. In the event of conflict, the preferred course of action is to employ incentives or compensation rather than authoritarian solutions.

With increasing recognition of the important role played by forests, forestry policies during the 1990s should encourage the best possible combination of economic, social and environmental benefits within the framework of sustainable development. But they should also provide for an equitable distribution of costs in the face of an increased and diversified demand for public assets to promote rural development, natural resource conservation and environmental protection - a situation that is threatening the already precarious profitability of rational forest management and utilization. At a national level, the reconciliation of these imperatives requires a dialogue between government authorities and private owners or local communities. At the international level, it involves the world community vis-à-vis countries that have abundant forest resources but are faced with the challenge of economic growth.

A revision of forest policies should focus both on the process of formulation, which must be more open and participatory, and on contents. In both cases, the emphasis should be on consultation for resolving differences of interest. Various solutions will have to be found according to the type of forest (state, community or private) and those involved will have to reassess their roles. Complementary strategies will have to be systematically sought on an intersectoral basis to facilitate convergent land management approaches. Forestry policies can no longer be defined within an exclusive national framework, but must take into account the international dimensions of forestry matters.

Finally, any discussion on the reorientation of forestry policies necessarily leads to the role and working methods of forestry institutions. Even a brief overview of the major forestry policy issues will draw attention to the vital need for institutional reforms to accompany changes in traditional forestry policies. The political commitment to change will ultimately be determined by the willingness of decision-makers to put the new forestry approaches to development into practice and to decide on the reforms required for policy support and the active participation of all interested parties.


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