Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

National Forestry Action Programmes as tools for sustainable forest development

J. Clément

Jean Clément is Director of the National Forestry Action Programmes Support Unit, FAO.

The basic principles that the National Forestry Action Programmes must apply in order to be effective tools for the implementation of UNCED decisions.

Many countries have adjusted their forestry policies in the three years since the Earth strategies and plans to improve their ongoing programmes of action. An intersectoral, holistic and participatory approach was clearly needed to meet the great challenge of combining sustainable forest development with environmental conservation. Overall operational coherence was also obviously needed to attain the objectives set. And the multiplicity of interaction between factor and actor - both internal and external to the sector - clearly called for meticulous but flexible programming to achieve the best possible mix of interventions by the various parties. Whether the final product is referred to as national strategy, plan or programme is immaterial; the important thing is to design it in accordance with the basic principles agreed on by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

This article sketches the National Forestry Action Programme [formerly Plan] (NFAP) approach, drawing from ten years of experience of plans and programmes under the Tropical Forestry Action Programme (TFAP), forestry development blueprints crafted with the help of the Asian Development Bank, sectoral analyses and Environmental Action Plans supported by the World Bank and the National Conservation Strategies promoted by the World Conservation Union and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The attraction of this approach is that it is based on the real experience of many countries throughout the world. Recent assessments by national coordinators have spotlighted the usefulness and achievements of these programmes, along with their failures and limitations. The aim of this article is to underscore the fundamental principles that, ideally, need to be applied to maximize quality and effectiveness, and make the NFAPs genuine tools to implement UNCED decisions.


The challenge to forestry policy-makers and planners

The challenge to forestry policy-makers and planners is to find intersectoral approaches that are congruent with existing planning structures and procedures and to ensure that they serve as an effective conceptual framework for the programming and implementation of a coherent set of forest-related measures and actions. With this in mind, Chapter 11 of Agenda 21 invited all countries to draw up and implement NFAPs as the tangible expression of the UNCED principles and recommendations.

In reality, the agreements of the Rio Summit are little more than international and political recognition of attitudes and initiatives that have been implemented for over 20 years by many technical, scientific and policy experts. A case in point is the need to reconsider the traditional approaches to forestry planning and programming which emerged during the 1980s in many countries, particularly in tropical countries badly shaken by the impact of galloping deforestation.

Many countries need to modify and revise their policies, legislation, strategies, programmes of action and management. How can the NFAPs be designed to address the Rio principles and adapt them to the problems and constraints of the forest environment? How can the specific needs of each community and country be satisfied, while at the same time maintaining the global balances needed to sustain physical and biological life?

Such questions are not exclusive to the forestry sector and the answers are undoubtedly also relevant to other sectors. But the proliferation of roles played by the forestry sector and the variety of stakeholders make the sustainable development approach a particularly complex and sensitive undertaking.


In many developing countries, the forest has been used to absorb population pressure for cropland. Deforestation is therefore closely linked to a country's capacity to organize the use and maintenance of this primary resource. The most effective actions to counter deforestation generally stem, in fact, from policies directed towards other areas: population, land distribution, industrial development and trade.

If these constraints are to be eased, the importance of national forestry plans or programmes must be recognized at the highest political level and the programmes must be included in a broader development planning exercise. Politicians must be involved in the sectoral process; politically compelling arguments for forest conservation and sustainable forestry development must be found; and a "critical mass" of well-informed and highly motivated decision-makers committed to the plan or programme must be created. Finally, programme implementation needs a mechanism to facilitate and monitor policy application and institutional efficiency in a more effective and transparent manner, as well as to ensure their evolution in light of the macroeconomic context and development priorities.

But beyond this vital political commitment, the forestry sector also needs to revise its traditional approach to planning and programming. Many countries (and not only the least developed) lack the national capacity to make the planning and implementation of their forestry programmes feasible and sustainable, and with the full involvement of all parties.

Forestry plans and programmes rely largely on a top-down approach to planning as well as execution, essentially because of two deep-rooted traditions: centralized planning in some countries, and the fact that throughout the world forestry planning is dominated by technocrats. There are still very few nations in which the local communities can actively participate in the selection of objectives, strategies and approaches, or are even consulted during the selection process.

One of the most obvious shortcomings of many forestry plans is their classic format of external assistance-governed projects that fail to take into account existing local constraints and dynamics, or offer incentives for local involvement or look into the most profitable ways of using development aid. In all too many countries, the government implements these externally funded projects, but has only limited intervention capacity. Donor dependence is therefore still heavy and development activities have little long-lasting impact.

The problems of capacity building stem partly from the predominant role of governmental institutions and the concomitant failure to direct action to the other essential sectors: private enterprise and non-governmental organizations directly linked to production. Forestry authorities are often reluctant to involve the private sector in the harvesting, processing and marketing of forest resources, and the forestry extension potential of NGOs and community groups is not fully harnessed.

One of the main obstacles to local capacity building is the common donor and funding agency practice of implementing projects and programmes outside the regular administrative channels, which are considered to lack efficiency and transparency. As a result, parallel structures are set up and co-opt the more capable technical experts.

Donors have often pointed to the lack of priorities as a major obstacle to the effectiveness of national forestry plans and programmes, but this charge cannot be generalized as donors have in fact often been seen to draw back from developing countries with clearly defined priorities. The basic problem is that each programme has two sets of policies and priorities: those of the country and those of the donor agency, each one considering its interests to be perfectly legitimate. This state of affairs should be openly admitted and mutually acceptable solutions should be negotiated. The problem is compounded in the many developing countries which lack solid democratic institutions. In such cases, special mechanisms are needed to ensure that priorities are defined in line with the interests of society as a whole, but with due respect for those of minority groups.


The solution to these often difficult institutional, economic and social contexts lies in the adoption of: i) a participatory planning and implementation approach that involves all those with a stake in the forest, whether at the local, national or global level; ii) an approach that addresses forestry issues in the broader context of social and environmental problems and intersectoral linkages; and iii) an approach that will also build a meaningful partnership between all actors and stress the sovereignty factor as well as each country's concomitant responsibilities in the management of its forest resources.

BOX: Approaches to forestry development

This approach, in the form of the National Forestry Action Programme, is put forward for the consideration of all countries. An NFAP is a conceptual and methodological reference frame in which to plan forest-related activities (particularly the contribution of forests and the forestry sector to other sectors and national and international initiatives). It provides the framework for the coherent harmonization of forestry and non-forestry (but forest-related) activities, for the control of their implementation and the evaluation of their impact.

The aim of an NFAP is to promote the conservation, management and sustainable use of forest resources to meet both local and national needs. It operates as a national and international partnership geared essentially towards sustainable development worldwide for the benefit of future generations. The basic NFAP functions are therefore: i) to raise an awareness of the problems of over-exploitation or inappropriate use of forest resources, thereby boosting efforts to reverse such negative tendencies; ii) to introduce intersectoral planning, with all stakeholders, for the formulation of appropriate policies and the implementation of programmes coherent with these policies; iii) to build partnerships at the local, national and international levels; and iv) to mobilize national and international resources for coordinated programme implementation.

A recent TFAP/NFAP publication


Long-term country-driven process

As an approach to planning, a National Forestry Action Programme is a long-term process that emphasizes policy reform and the building or bolstering of national capacities to manage and implement action programmes. It involves a review of the situation in the light of national development objectives, the preparation and examination of development scenarios, the determination of forestry policy and an implementation strategy as well as a plan of action. Performance and impact are constantly evaluated to permit periodic updating.

An NFAP is an ongoing and recurring process. It should take into account existing and pipeline planning components and programmes and projects that are under way. Ongoing assessment is essential from the very earliest planning stages. There must be adequate monitoring and control tools.

Finally, the preparation of an NFAP is a national initiative under full national responsibility. Even when external aid is considered necessary in many resource-poor countries to get the programmes under way, the exercise itself must be totally country-driven.

BOX: Implementation of the NFAP in Cameroon

Participation as the focus of partnership

A specific feature of the NFAP process is that it eliminates the divide that separates the "initiated" and "experts" from "the others", and opens the way for frank and transparent analysis of relations between the forestry sector and the various social, political and economic components constraining the sector. Interdependencies and interlinkages can only be perceived where such a partnership exists. National partners go beyond government officials, experts and policy-makers to include representatives of NGOs, professional organizations, village groups, forest dwellers, private enterprise, associations, and so on.

What an NFAP essentially aims to do is to reconcile conflicts of interest by encouraging debate between all parties. For, without the active participation of all stakeholders, the NFAPs are very unlikely to achieve their objective of sustainable forest management.

The objectives of such participation are to:

Various gradual stages are needed to attain a satisfactory level of participation. The first is the consultation stage which should invite the free expression of opinions, followed by active involvement in discussions and, finally, participation in decision-making. Full participation is the result of permanent interaction of mutual benefit to all parties. Finally, participation is a costly process which requires access to adequate funds. The transparency, dissemination and accessibility of information (for example, from a linguistic viewpoint) requires a ready availability of resources and skills.

More on..."Revamping an NFAP: the experience of Ecuador"

A holistic, intersectoral and multidisciplinary approach

The contextual backdrop for NFAPs is a broad holistic canvas of forestry with all its components and implications. The forestry sector should be perceived as all activities relating to forests and forest resources, and all people living and/or working in the forest environment.

The holistic approach of the NFAPs therefore implies that:

From an operational viewpoint, the NFAP implementation process should thus take a close look at intersectoral links and impacts, clarifying problems common to the forestry and other sectors. The outcome of this intersectoral analysis is based on the full integration of the NFAP in the national development strategy and its harmonization with existing subnational and local development plans. In the final analysis, many so-called "forestry" actions undertaken at the local level only make sense if they are conceived as components of integrated action for multisectoral local development.

The NFAP approach can only be truly multidisciplinary if it is not appropriated by the professional forester. Biologists, agronomists, economists, sociologists and ethnologists should also be fully involved, not just as consultants but also in their own right, in the discussion, orientation and implementation processes.

More on..."Policy formulation and strategy development in Viet Nam"


Sustainability cannot be seen exclusively as an objective. It has to be lived. This is in fact the radical change inherent in the NFAP approach. The review, policy, strategy and programme formulation stages must all embrace the criterion of sustainability. Policies and programmes need to be technically feasible, financially viable, socially acceptable, environmentally sound and institutionally sustainable. Forests and forestry cannot function in abrupt stops and starts, or with frequent changes of direction. The complex make-up of the world today calls for change, but change governed by the need for sustainability. The future of the forest and indeed of the planet has this price.

Our approach to life and the underlying values are being called into question. Sustainable development is inspiring us to reflect, act and change our habits and way of thinking. But sustainable development cannot be achieved unless each and every one of us seeks to enlighten our understanding of the environment. As Joël de Rosnay so aptly put it, we have to take that difficult step from "egocitizen" to "ecocitizen". It is up to us to reconsider our choices for the mutual benefit of both ourselves and future generations.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page