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FAO forestry

State of the world's forests 1997

Executive summary

The following article is a reproduction of the executive summary of the State of the world's forests 1997 (SOFO 1997), a recently released publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SOFO is a biennial publication, which seeks to provide accurate, up-to-date and accessible information on the world's forests and on developments in the forestry sector. SOFO presents policyrelevant information on the status and trends of forests and forest products and services, new developments and emerging issues of significance in the sector and external forces influencing forestry. It is written for a varied audience, including people working in governmental and nongovernmental organizations concerned with forestry policy and/or programmes, forestry enterprises and trade associations, research and educational institutions and regional and international financial or development organizations.

Onwards from Rio

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, provided impetus and commitment to international activity focused on the world's forests. It led to the establishment, in April 1995, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. The role of the IPF is to follow up UNCED recommendations on sustainable forest management and to encourage international consensus on key issues related to forests. The work of the IPF, together with that of international organizations, national governments, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector, represents an unprecedented level of international forestry activity.

External impacts on forests

Economic, political, demographic and social trends are shaping the management of forests and influencing national forest policy formulation and institutional arrangements. Demographic changes - both the growing size and increasing urbanization of the world's population - have had, and will continue to have, major impacts on forest cover and condition, demand for wood and non-wood forest products, and the ability of forests to fulfil essential environmental functions. Political and economic trends affecting the forestry sector include: decentralization; privatization; trade liberalization and globalization of the world economy; and overall economic growth, tempered by a widening gap between rich and poor in many countries.

Forest lands

SOFO 1997 presents new information on global forest cover, including: the area of forests in 1995; change since 1990; and revised estimates for forest cover change between 1980 and 1990, ail derived from the FAO forest resources assessment (FRA) programme. The area of the world's forests, including natural forests and plantations, is estimated to have been 3 454 million ha in 1995, slightly more than half of which was in developing countries. Between 1990 and 1995, there was an estimated net loss of 56.3 million ha of forests worldwide, representing a decrease of 65.1 million ha in developing countries which was partly offset by an increase of 8.8 million ha in developed countries. Considering only natural forests in developing countries, which is where most deforestation is occurring, the new estimates indicate that:

· the annual loss of natural forests between 1980 and 1990 was lower than the estimate made earlier by FRA 1990 (15.5 million ha versus 16.3 million ha); and
· the annual loss of natural forests was lower during the 1990-1995 period than between 1980 and 1990 (13.7 million ha versus 15.5 million ha).

In short, although deforestation continues to be significant in developing countries, the rate of loss of natural forests between 1980 and 1990 appears to have been slower than previously estimated, and to have decreased since.

Deforestation and forest degradation are occurring in dryland and upland areas which already have limited forest cover and are fragile environments susceptible to soil erosion and other forms of degradation, and where poor communities are highly dependent on forests for food, fuel and income. Tropical rain forests and moist tropical forests, which are of local social and economic importance and of global significance for biological diversity conservation and climate regulation, are also undergoing rapid change.

Recent information on the nature and causes of change in forest cover in the tropics suggests that expansion of subsistence agriculture in Africa and Asia, and large economic development programmes involving resettlement, agriculture and infrastructure in Latin America and Asia, are key factors behind forest cover change. Although, in general, timber harvesting is not a direct cause of deforestation, it has been a facilitating factor in some areas through the construction of roads which make previously remote areas accessible to agricultural colonizers. Causes of forest degradation include excessive collection of fuelwood, overgrazing, fire, overharvesting of timber and poor harvesting practices.

In the coming decades, pressures for increased food production are expected to continued conversion of forest land to agriculture in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where other options to meet food needs are limited.

Forest products

While the world's forest area has been steadily decreasing, there has been a continued increase in demand for wood products. The latest FAO forest products statistics, which provide figures up to 1994, indicate that global consumption of wood increased by 36 percent between 1970 and 1994.

Demand for fuelwood, which is the main or sole source of domestic energy for two-fifths of the world's population, continues to grow by 1.2 percent per year. About 90 percent of the world's fuelwood is produced and used in developing countries. By contrast, developed countries account for 72 percent of the total world production and consumption of industrial wood products. While the rate of consumption in developed countries has levelled off, however, it continues to bee in developing countries.

Many countries are relying more on plantations and, in some places, on farm forestry and agroforestry to supply their wood needs. The availability of wood from plantations in Asia, Oceania and South America is increasing rapidly. The area of plantations in developing countries alone more than doubled from 40 million ha in 1980 to 81 million ha in 1995.

More efficient processing, increased recycling and greater use of residues have enabled forest industries to raise the output of processed products significantly with a proportionally smaller increase of raw material. Other important recent trends include: diversifying raw material inputs, expanding product lines and developing more environmentally friendly processing technologies. International trade in forest products, currently accounting for 6 to 8 percent of world roundwood production and an estimated value of US$114 000 million, continues to increase in economic importance. The developed countries dominate world trade in forest products, accounting for about 80 percent of the value of both exports and imports, but developing country regions, particularly Asia and Latin America, are becoming increasingly important. Recent regional trade agreements have helped diversify trade and increase intraregional trade.

Concern has been raised over whether future demand for forest products can be met sustainably, given the worldwide increase in demand and decrease in forest area. Provisional results of an FAO global outlook study on trends to the year 2010, which projects a 1 percent increase in wood demand per year, suggest that there should be sufficient wood to meet global demand until that time. Long-term adequacy of supply will depend on sustainable management of forest resources. Trade in forest products is expected to increase, and will be necessary to offset major wood deficits projected for Asia and to ease a tight softwood supply expected in the United States. Some developing countries, however, will have difficulty supplying their needs for industrial wood products because of a lack of capacity to import, and will have deficits of non-traded goods such as fuelwood. The global projections assume increasing recovery and recycling of paper and paperboard, and a higher reliance on plantations for wood production. FAO studies now under way on fibre supply projections complement the outlook study; together they will provide a clearer picture of the future wood demand and supply situation.

While wood is the predominant commercial product from forests, increased attention has recently been paid to the actual and potential economic role of nonwood forest products (NWFPs). Although their use is poorly quantified and their value is generally underestimated in national accounts, the importance of NWFPs to household and local economies, particularly among the poor in developing countries, is increasingly recognized, as is their potential for greater commercialization.

Currently, at least 150 NWFPs are significant in international trade, for a total estimated value of US$11 100 million. Expanding trade in NWFPs would favour developing countries, which are the main suppliers to international markets. Consistent policies and governmental support needed for sustainable commercial development of NWFPs, however, are still lacking in most countries.

The environmental functions of forests

The increased importance ascribed to the environmental functions of forests and their integral role in sustainable forest management was highlighted by Chapter 11 of Agenda 21 (Combating Deforestation) and the Forest Principles adopted at UNCED. It is also reflected in recently enacted international conventions, including: the International Convention to Combat Desertification; the Convention on Biological Diversity; and the Framework Convention on Global Climate Change. These conventions are expected to reinforce ongoing national, regional and international activities in these areas. Follow-up to the UN Conference on Human Settlements (Istanbul, 1996) and other efforts to improve the urban environment are likely to heighten the focus on urban and pert-urban forestry. Most recently, the World Food Summit (FAO, Rome 1996) drew international attention to the role of forests and trees in food security, particularly in supporting agricultural production systems, but also in supplementing food supplies and providing fuel for cooking and in generating income.

Recent developments in forest management which reflect the increased emphasis on environmental services of forests include: efforts to manage forests as ecological systems (taking into consideration forests' protective functions and their role in the conservation of biological diversity); adoption of reducedimpact logging systems and development of codes of harvesting practice; and restrictions placed on timber harvesting in forests in North America and some tropical Asian and Pacific countries. Environmental concerns have also led to certification schemes and export controls for forest products. The trend towards increased involvement of nearby communities in forest management, particularly in developing countries, allows for greater consideration to be given to local environmental concerns and to the social benefits derived locally from forests.

Evolving institutional framework

Rapidly evolving institutional arrangements for forest planning and management reflect changing priorities and approaches within the sector and external economic and political trends. Current areas of focus in many developing countries are: the development and institutionalization of participatory forest management systems; recognition of access rights of local communities to forest resources; and issues related to forest-dependent indigenous peoples. Increased emphasis on environmental functions of forests has led several developing countries to shift some of the responsibilities of forestry departments to recently established departments of environment or natural resources. In countries in transition, changes in ownership of forest land and forest enterprises have had a significant impact on forest management. There is a general trend in many countries towards the privatization of public forest enterprises and of research and extension functions. Worldwide developments affecting forestry institutions include: reductions in budgets and staff of forestry departments; decentralization of forest administrations; and continued efforts to develop mechanisms to involve a wide range of interest groups in forestry policy formulation and planning.

Sustainable forest management

Many efforts, governmental and non-governmental, national and international, have been made to promote sustainable forest management. Major international initiatives include: the Tropical

Timber Organization's Year 2000 Objective, in which producer member countries have committed themselves to having all their internationally traded tropical timber come from sustainably managed forests by the year 2000; and national and regional efforts to define criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management and to determine means of assessing progress towards achieving it. The latter involves a number of regional initiatives, most of which have been launched since 1995, focusing on: humid tropical forests in ITTO producer countries; boreal, temperate and Mediterranean forests in Europe (the Helsinki Process); temperate and boreal forests outside Europe (the Montreal Process); Amazon basin forests (the Tarapoto Proposal); and forests in dry-zone subSaharan Africa (the UNEP/FAO DryZone Africa initiative); in the Near East region (FAO/UNEP Expert Meeting for the Near East); and in Central America (FAO/CCAD Expert Meeting on Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management in Central America).

Continued progress towards more widespread sustainable forest management will depend on: improved information on the world's forest resources; strengthened sector planning based on improved methods of forest valuation; better intersectoral linkages and continued constructive dialogue between various interest groups; strengthened forestry institutions; and improved coordination among the various entities involved in forest management and resource use. Most important, implementing sustainable forest management will depend on local, national and international commitment to achieving it.

SOFO 1997 and and executive summary of this publication are available IN English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. The electronic version of SOFO 1997 (both the main text and the Executive summary) may be accessed on the Internet through the home page of the FAO Forestry Department at http:// www/ forestry/forestry.htm.

Printed copies of the Executive summary of SOFO 1997 are available free of charge, and printed copies of the main text may be ordered (at US$25 per copy) through the FAO Information Division, Sales and Marketing Group, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy (e-mail:

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