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Educating foresters of the twenty-first century

C. Konijnendijk

Cecil Konijnendijk, a forestry student at Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands, is President of the International Forestry Students Association.

A student's perspective on contemporary forestry and forestry education. The need for more attention to the close relationship between people and forests is stressed, as is the need for increased international contacts and exchanges among forestry students - two matters in which the International Forestry Students Association (IFSA) can play a significant role.

What has become of our wonderful profession? We sometimes ask our forestry colleagues and ourselves this question. Forestry is not what it used to be. Traditionally, foresters were those men and, only a very few, women who dressed in green uniform and worked in remote, dark forested areas. Timber production was their primary concern. They hardly ever saw or spoke to people other than their family and colleagues and could do more or less what they wanted. Romantic images that probably brought more than the odd one of us to study forestry.

The profession has changed, however. To begin with, forest areas were sacrificed to urban development and became an integral part of an expanding human society which was more dynamic than ever before. Foresters increasingly had to deal with representatives of urban groups who were growing predominant and vocal in society as a whole. These urban groups had their own views and opinions on how to use the world's forests. It had become clear that the forests which had survived human attacks, and the ones that were planted by humans, would need to be managed in different ways so as to offer various benefits to society. Today, timber production is still important but nature conservation, environmental roles, recreation and other functions have been given an important position within the spectrum of forest services.

The foresters of today - including forest scientists - have had to change their ways and views rather drastically. Perhaps they already knew about the importance of other forest functions and the complexity of forest ecosystems in which all elements and relationships are to be taken into account, but something else made change necessary: foresters had to start dealing with people - with billions of them.

As a consequence, new fields of interest were born. Today's magic words include social forestry, community forestry and urban forestry, along with those that emphasize the new image of forestry: ecosystem management, holistic approaches and land-use systems.

Changes within the world of forestry have always taken a long time to be generally accepted. Perhaps this is a negative consequence of the long-term perspective that is characteristic of forestry as well as of foresters' rather conservative way of thinking and acting. Foresters have always been taught to defend their long-term principles against the short-term ideas of urban society and its political and industrial representatives. This attitude has presumably saved the last "untouched" forests but, in an age of extremely dynamic processes and changes, an optimal mix between long-term and short-term actions has to be found.

Opening session of the 1993 IFSS in Serdang, Malaysia


Younger generations often adopt changes more easily, most likely because their heads are not overloaded with traditional concepts and views. This is a good thing, because they will be part of the establishment within a few years and thus will be the force that takes new ideas and turns them into common practice. The late Jack Westoby (once an FAO forester) was fully aware of this:

"Young foresters have long felt the need to broaden the concept of forestry and address new problems thrown up by a changing society. Student pressure has helped alter forestry curricula, giving enhanced importance to the social sciences and curbing the incessant pressure for more technological detail. The men and women leaving forestry schools today may know a little less about tree physiology and wood anatomy than the generations which preceded them, but they have clearer ideas about what societies want from their forests, and how those wants could be satisfied. Where the forestry curriculum has responded to changing needs, forestry education can be a valuable preparation for living in modern society, embracing as it does interrelations between people, the natural resources on which they depend, and technology." (Westoby, 1989)

In short, forestry students, who will be the forestry professionals of the twenty-first century, will be the ones who will have to meet the new requirements imposed on them by society. To deal with new, intensive and various demands, forestry students have to be educated in a way that will prepare them for their future tasks.

Therefore, it is appropriate to consider academic forestry education as it stands today. Are the world's forestry curricula meeting modern requirements? Are the changes in forestry and forestry science sufficiently incorporated into education programmes?


At Wageningen Agricultural University, the forestry curriculum has changed significantly over the past few decades. In 1958, the curriculum included courses on silvicultural techniques, wood science, forest exploitation, geology, soil science and entomology, while social aspects of forestry were virtually absent (van der Bosch, 1986). Today, a large part of the curriculum consists of "social subjects", including forest policy, forestry and rural development, forests for recreation, forestry and land use and many others. Changes in the contents of the forestry B.Sc. and M.Sc. programmes are being put into place over a period of months rather than years. Integration with other curricula - such as nature conservation and land-use sciences - is a logical option which is being followed by many universities throughout the world. From this point of view, the end of traditional forestry studies seems near.

For forestry students, these are interesting but also very confusing times. Curricula sometimes change two or three times during our studies. New courses may start and disappear within a few years. To many students, the changes in forestry education appear poorly structured or not drastic enough. Our teachers are generally part of a forestry establishment that has difficulties with the changes society asks of the profession. Therefore, necessary changes and adaptations are made on an ad hoc basis or are delayed. A logical consequence is that new graduates have "identity" problems: they are not qualified to deal with "traditional" forestry, nor are they able to meet contemporary requirements. In parts of Europe, for example, this has led to a decreasing number of forestry graduates holding forestry-related positions. Their places are taken by planners, landscape architects, sociologists and even law school graduates. Unemployment rates among academic forestry graduates are higher than ever before.

New ways of educating What should be done to prepare the twenty-first century foresters better for their future tasks? What new programmes could increase our chances of finding a suitable job after graduation?

First of all, structural changes in the forestry curricula are needed. As mentioned previously, social aspects should be made an important part of contemporary forestry education, alongside more "traditional" but still essential courses on silviculture, tree physiology, wood science, etc. Foresters should be taught how to deal with various groups and representatives of society (e.g. local populations, politicians, professionals from other disciplines). More attention should be given to subjects such as sociology, environmental psychology, public relations, law and policy-making.

The second modification is closely related to the first. Foresters' "entry into society" should be embodied by forestry curricula that focus on urban as well as rural areas. In the United States and Canada, urban forestry has been accepted by the forestry sector as a "new" and promising field of interest. Forestry does not stop at city boundaries.

Foresters should be trained in public relations, including with the media. Here, media attention is focused on the participants and organizers of the 1992 IFSS in Italy during a field trip


Another important area for change, in fact the key element of this article, is in international communication among forestry students. Such communication should be increased to give students a head start in establishing international cooperation and to help them develop an "open mind" for approaching comparable problems in different ways.

Forestry has increasingly become a global affair. Just as forests often do not stop at city boundaries, they also go beyond country borders. The past few decades have shown that many global problems - for example the greenhouse effect and threats to biological diversity - have much to do with the world's forests. Also important is that the challenges foresters face in different parts of the world often have similar backgrounds and solutions.

International cooperation has become an integral part of the forestry professional's job. Governments as well as international organizations such as FAO, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) stimulate international contacts and the exchange of information, experiences and views. Developments in communications technology have been spectacular and have facilitated information exchange.

For forestry students, international contacts are sometimes incorporated in their curricula. In Europe, for example, the SILVA network (as part of the European Community's ERASMUS programme) stimulates forestry students to spend time studying outside their home country. In addition, research projects in foreign countries are an essential part of study programmes. Throughout the world, talented students are offered scholarships to spend part of their studies in foreign countries and manyforestry students now have access to electronic mail networks which have enabled them to meet their forestry counterparts via computer.

However, these programmes and techniques are only a first step towards establishing an international network of forestry students. Exchanges are often bilateral, initiated by forestry professionals, and many students (those from less privileged countries or who achieve average study results) do not have the opportunity to participate. Communications technology is not yet available to many students, which means the international network is incomplete, centred on specific areas of the world and focused on a small group of "privileged" students.

A field trip in the Swiss Alps during the 22nd IFSS in 1994. Learning about forestry practice in foreign countries enables forestry students to develop different views on forestry in general

International Forestry Students Association

The desire of forestry students for more contact with their counterparts from other countries - to exchange ideas, experiences and views - has been the main reason for initiating an annual International Forestry Students Symposium (IFSS) in Europe. The first of these symposia took place in the United Kingdom in 1973. After some years, the event moved to the Continent and was hosted by Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland. During the 18th IFSS, held in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1990, forestry students from Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America decided to expand their cooperation beyond an annual event. They needed an organization that would take care of more meetings like the IFSS, stimulate the exchange of information and represent forestry students on an international level. This decision led to the birth of the International Forestry Students Association (IFSA).

Now, five years later, IFSA has brought together hundreds of forestry students for symposia, seminars, exchanges, etc. Initially, the organization was very European-centred and, to some extent, this is still the case. Fortunately, however, the involvement of students from other continents has increased, in part because of the financial support of governments and non-governmental organizations. Another development has been the recognition of the importance of IFSA by many representatives and organizations within the forestry sector who are also willing to search for ways of cooperating.

What does a forestry student receive in return for involvement in IFSA? Speaking for myself, my involvement in IFSA has had a tremendous impact on my forestry studies and the way I look on forestry. I was one of the organizers of the 19th IFSS in Wageningen. During the symposium, I became interested in the subject of urban forestry. Participating in a special workshop, I discussed the issue with students from Africa, South America and Europe which further stimulated my interest in the subject and has led to my planning a thesis on Dutch urban forests and urban forestry Ph.D. research starting in August 1995.

IFSA has not just affected my "professional" life in this way. My contacts with forestry students from over 50 countries have radically changed my ideas about forestry and its relationship to society. Apart from this, I have become part of an international network of forestry students and recent graduates. I am sure this will be of much help in the near future.

The "international view" that I have adopted after four years with IFSA (the last two as president) is shared by the hundreds of students who have participated in an IFSS and other IFSA events. In a way, we have been teaching ourselves new ways of viewing forests and forestry and of international cooperation. IFSA has given us an opportunity to enrich our formal education.

Are the changes within forestry and forestry science sufficiently incorporated into education programmes?


At a time when forestry has to change its concepts to meet contemporary societal needs, the focus must be on improving forestry education worldwide. Forestry students should be taught how to deal with people in urban as well as rural areas. In order to keep in step with the globalization of our profession, students should be offered more opportunities to communicate with their counterparts from other countries.

For the forestry profession, the concept of IFSA may turn out to be a fairly inexpensive way of improving the education of its academic students. Most of us will agree that every forestry student should have the opportunity to participate in one or more IFSA (or other international) activities. For the students who are now responsible for making IFSA work, funding is one of the primary concerns. With enthusiasm and commitment we have tried to make the association work, and not without success. Yet, as always, without money nothing is possible. IFSA therefore hopes for more financial support from the forestry sector, e.g. from universities, forestry-related industry and international organizations, and, of course, for a positive attitude towards our ideas and actions. We are the foresters of the twenty-first century but we could not survive without the help of the generations of foresters who have come before us - just like fast-growing tree seedlings vigorously reaching for sunlight, but sheltered by their parents in the canopy.


Salleh, M.N. 1992. Tropical forests, a growing concern. In J.A. Hummel & M.P.E. Parren, eds. Forests, a growing concern. Proceedings of the 19th International Forestry Students Symposium, Wageningen, the Netherlands. Wageningen-Gland-Cambridge, IFSS Foundation/IUCN.

van der Bosch, J. 1986. Landbouwscholen in Wageningen [Agricultural schools in Wageningen]. Wageningen, the Netherlands, Wageningen Agricultural University.

Westoby, J. 1989. Introduction to world forestry. Oxford, UK, Blackwell.

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